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Massive blasts at Chinese port kill at least 44, injure more than 500

13 August 2015

Enormous explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed at least 44 people and injured more than 500 on August 12, state media reported. The blasts were caused by a shipment of explosives detonating in a warehouse, wrecking the immediate neighbourhood and raining debris on the city. Tianjin is about 140 kilometres southeast of Beijing and has a population of nearly 15 million people.

Stock image
Stock image

The explosion was felt several kilometres away, and was even being picked up by a Japanese weather satellite, according to AFP. The force of the first explosion was the equivalent of three tonnes of TNT, the China Earthquake Networks Centre said on its Weibo account, followed by a second blast equal to 21 tonnes.

Reuters quoted witnesses saying that large areas of the port were devastated, with crumpled shipping containers thrown around, hundreds of new cars torched and port buildings left as burnt-out shells.

Citing rescue headquarters, the official Xinhua news agency said 44 people were killed, including 12 firefighters.The agency also said 520 people had been hospitalised, 66 of them in critical condition. Scores of firefighters were already on the scene before the explosion, responding to an initial fire at the site. 

The state-run Beijing News earlier cited Tianjin fire authorities as saying they had lost contact with 36 firefighters, and that another 33 were among the hundreds of people being treated in nearby hospitals.

Xinhua said 1,000 firefighters and more than 140 fire engines were struggling to contain the resulting blaze in a warehouse that contained "dangerous goods". The agency said the volatility of the goods meant the fire was especially unpredictable and dangerous to approach.

Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily said specialist anti-chemical warfare troops were being sent to the site.

It was not clear what caused the shipment of explosives to detonate inside a storage container, but the proximity of other dangerous chemicals could have played a part. Environmental group Greenpeace said the hazardous chemicals stored at the site included sodium cyanide (NaCN), toluene diisocyanate (TDI) and calcium carbide (CaC2).

Executives from the company that owns the warehouses, Tianjin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai International Logistics, were taken into custody by police, Xinhua said. President Xi Jinping said in a statement carried by official media that those responsible should be "severely handled".

China has a poor industrial safety record as some factory and warehouse owners evade regulations to save money and pay off corrupt officials to ignore violations.

In 2013, a pipeline explosion at state-owned oil refiner Sinopec's facility in the eastern port of Qingdao killed 62 people and injured 136.

In July this year, 15 people were killed and more than a dozen injured when an illegal fireworks warehouse exploded in the northern province of Hebei, which neighbours Tianjin.

And at least 71 were killed in an explosion at a car parts factory in Kunshan, near Shanghai, in August last year.

Update: On August 13, officials in Tianjin said the series of explosions in the port area of the city killed at least 50, including at least 17 firefighters. By late afternoon, Xinhua said another 18 firefighters were missing, while 66 were among the 700 being treated in nearby hospitals. 71 of the injured are said to be in a serious condition.

The Tianjin Port Group Company said dozens of its employees remained unaccounted for, Xinhua said.

The blasts shattered windows in buildings and cars and knocked down walls in a 2-km radius around the site. More than 3,500 residents whose homes were damaged by the blasts spent the night in temporary shelters, but city authorities said the blasts had made up to 6,000 people homeless.

The epicentre was a warehouse at the port storing chemicals and hazardous materials  goods owned by Tianjin Dongjiang Port Ruihai International Logistics. Initial reports stated that there was an earlier fire at the site that was being attended by firefighters. Other local sources said the initial explosion was in a shipment of explosives, but this has not been confirmed.

Reuters reported that according to a 2014 government assessment, the Ruihai facility was designed to store chemicals including butanone, an explosive industrial solvent, sodium cyanide and compressed natural gas. The company also reportedly handles toluene diisocyanate, which is used in the production of flexible polyurethane foams.

Sodium cyanide and toluene diisocyanate are said to be extremely toxic and even short-term exposure is harmful.

Gao Huaiyou, deputy director of Tianjin's work safety watchdog, told reporters that there were major discrepancies between the accounts of company managers and customs officials. He said damage to the company's office made it difficult to identify the chemicals involved.

Xinhua said that drains from Tianjin to the Bohai Sea - a gulf in the Yellow Sea - had been closed "to stem chemical leak".

Earlier in August, local work safety officials had met with companies from various industries to discuss the handling of dangerous chemicals, according to a notice posted on a Tianjin government website.

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