By ANDREW JACOBS, AUGUST 15, 2015
BEIJING — The authorities in the port city of Tianjin in northern China struggled to contain contamination from an enormous chemical fire on Saturday amid mounting frustration from people demanding information about missing loved ones.
Orders for a large-scale evacuation of the neighborhoods closest to the blast were quickly rescinded, underscoring the government’s halting efforts to cope with one of China’s worst industrial accidents in recent years.
Explosions and fires late Wednesday at a warehouse at the city’s Binhai New Area port killed at least 112 people, though the death toll is expected to rise considerably as more victims are discovered in the rubble of burned-out port buildings and the piles of toppled shipping containers.
Among the missing are 85 firefighters who were presumably overcome by two fireballs so huge they were captured by satellite cameras. The percussive force of the blasts damaged buildings and blew out windows nearly two miles away, injuring hundreds of people in their apartments in Tianjin, China’s third-largest city and about 90 miles from Beijing.
Graphic | Maps, Videos and Photos of the Explosions in China Maps and videos showing the extent of damage from two explosions that ripped through an industrial area in the coastal city of Tianjin, China.
The company that owned the warehouse where the blasts originated, Rui Hai International Logistics, appears to have violated Chinese law by operating close to apartment buildings and worker dormitories. Residents say they were unaware that the company was handling dangerous materials.
On Saturday morning, distraught relatives holding up handwritten lists of names stormed a news conference in Tianjin and demanded information about dozens of firefighters whose names did not appear on official lists of the missing and dead.
“They’re only 18, 19 years old,” yelled one woman. “The oldest is only 20 years old. They’re only children.”
A police official at the news conference, seeking to calm the crowd, expressed empathy. “Not a single police officer death has been reported,” he told them. “Everyone from our whole police station is gone.”
The newspaper Southern People Weekly detailed the exchange on its microblog account, but the posts were later deleted.
More than three days after the blasts, the authorities have still been unable to identify the toxic chemicals smoldering at the site of the destroyed warehouse, a temporary depot for substances that are some of the chemical industry’s most volatile and toxic.
On Saturday, Chinese news outlets reported that a customs authority inventory did not match the list of stored goods provided by Rui Hai employees, suggesting that the company may have been illegally transporting chemicals. “Some relevant people indicated that the differences in the information point to the possibility of smuggling,” the newsmagazine Caijing wrote on its website.
Investigators have so far confirmed only the presence of sodium cyanide, a highly toxic substance that has already seeped into drainage pipes beneath the port facilities. A report in The Beijing News said Rui Hai had been illegally storing some of the chemicals outdoors in “metal buckets and wooden crates.” Another report in the state-run Science Daily newspaper said there were at least 700 tons of sodium cyanide at the site, far in excess of the 10 tons it was licensed to handle. The chemical, which is used in the mining of gold, is extremely lethal in tiny amounts and can release a deadly and flammable gas.
Experts have expressed concern about forecasts of rain, saying precipitation could spread the contamination beyond the immediate blast zone. In addition to sending a team of hazardous materials experts, the authorities have been trying to prevent rain from falling on the area, the state media said, presumably by firing silver-iodide rockets into approaching storm clouds.
Among those reportedly sent to help identify the chemicals were employees of the agency that manages the sprawling port. In a posting on WeChat, a popular messaging app, one man expressed alarm that his wife and her co-workers were being trained to survey areas outside the disaster’s epicenter for stray chemicals.
“It was ordered by the chairwoman of Tianjin Port, who is betting the health and lives of ordinary employees just for her political career,” wrote the man, who declined to give his name during a brief phone conversation, saying he did not want to endanger his wife’s job.
On Saturday morning, according to The Beijing News, volunteers with loudspeakers roamed Binhai’s residential areas telling people to move beyond a radius of nearly two miles from the blast site. Evacuees were reportedly told to wear masks and long pants.
“Out of consideration for toxic substances spreading, the masses nearby have been asked to evacuate,” the state Xinhua news agency said in a Twitter post.
But shortly afterward, local officials described the evacuation orders as a misunderstanding, perhaps prompted by a shift in wind direction that forced emergency workers to move their temporary command headquarters.
In the meantime, propaganda officials continued to aggressively manage news coverage of the disaster. The state media on Saturday featured moving tales of heroism and survival — including the rescue of a 50-year-old man found in a battered shipping container — while censors worked to delete social media posts criticizing the paucity of information or suggesting an official cover-up.
On Saturday, the Cyberspace Administration of China said it had suspended or shut down 50 websites and 360 social media accounts for spreading rumors and misinformation about the catastrophe, according to Xinhua. Among those punished were “star bloggers” accused of causing “panic by comparing the blast to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”