Chinese authorities have ordered the evacuation of residents near the site of two huge explosions in the port of Tianjin. There are fears the area could be contaminated by toxic chemicals.
Flames could be seen burning at the blast site in Tianjin’s North on Saturday, as police ordered people within a 3-kilometer (1.8-mile) radius to leave their homes. The official Xinhua news agency reported that the evacuation was carried out after large amounts of highly poisonous sodium cyanide were identified nearby.
More than 85 people were killed after a giant explosion at a chemical storage facility on Wednesday sparked a blaze that has been burning for days. A series of new blasts and fires broke out on Saturday. About 6,300 people in the city of 15 million have been displaced, with more than 700 injured and an unknown number of firefighters still missing.
Police and security staff were manning checkpoints leading to the blast site on Saturday, while more than 200 nuclear and biochemical experts from the military were sent in.
Tianjin work safety official Gao Huaiyou told a news conference that authorities were still working to identify all the chemicals that were being kept at the storage facility. He also said personnel from sodium cyanide producers had been called in “because they are experts on the chemical’s nature and the ways to deal with it.”
Locals have expressed anger over what they describe as a lack of transparency about the potential dangers from the blast. There are also concerns, reported by state media, that firefighters may have made the situation worse by spraying water on substances – like sodium cyanide – that react explosively to it.
“It is not clear whether a chemical reaction occurred,” said Lei Jinde, the head of the firefighting department at Tianjin’s public security bureau. He added that the facility was listed as holding ammonium nitrate, potassium nitrate and calcium carbide.
Local authorities have also come under fire for permitting dangerous materials to be stored so close to residential complexes. Under Chinese regulations, warehouses stocking hazardous goods must be at least one kilometer (0.6 miles) from surrounding homes, public structures and main roads.
…Death toll rises in Tianjin blasts
The death toll from the huge explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin has risen to 85 on Saturday. The number includes 21 firefighters, with hundreds of people injured and some still unaccounted for.
A succession of explosions Thursday was sparked by a fire at what authorities said were shipping containers containing hazardous material at a warehouse.
The explosions occurred at night and they struck a mostly industrial zone otherwise the death toll could have been much higher.
Firefighters initially responded to a blaze at the warehouse. Many of them were apparently killed by a series of explosions that went off 40 minutes after the fire was reported.
Local officials told a news conference Saturday that the toll included at least 21 firefighters among the more than 1,000 sent to quench the disaster.
State broadcaster CCTV reported that Zhou Ti, a 19-year-old firefighter, had been pulled from the zone at about dawn Friday and taken to a hospital, where he was treated for face, chest and foot injuries.
There have been questions circulating in Chinese media about whether the firefighters may have sparked the blasts. One report suggested that water used by first responders may have come into contact with a chemical that explodes on contact with water.
Many of the fire trucks seen at the site hours after the blasts were using a kind of firefighting foam.
Authorities have not said what caused the explosions, saying only that they originated at the warehouse owned by Ruihai International Logistics.
The company’s website says it is authorized to handle chemicals ranging from flammable gases and liquids, including compressed natural gas and ethyl acetate, to chemicals that explode on contact with water, including sodium cyanide and calcium carbide.
One day after the blasts, Tianjin’s environmental protection chief Wen Wurui told a news conference that there had been no apparent contamination of the air, based on samples taken at five air monitoring stations throughout the city. He also said that all waterways leading from the disaster site to the sea had been sealed to contain any potential water leaks.