TIANJIN, China – New small explosions rocked a disaster zone in the Chinese port of Tianjin on Saturday, as authorities pulled out an additional survivor and began evacuating the area to clean up chemical contamination nearly three days after massive explosions touched off the crisis.
Angry relatives of missing firefighters stormed a government news conference to demand any information on their loved ones, who have not been found since a fire and rapid succession of blasts late Wednesday at a warehouse for hazardous chemicals.
The death toll in the inferno in a mostly industrial area has climbed to 85, including 21 firefighters – making the disaster the deadliest for Chinese firefighters in more than six decades.
An unknown number of firefighters remain missing, and a total of 720 people were injured in the disaster in Tianjin, a key port and petrochemical hub about 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Beijing.
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The disaster has raised questions about whether dangerous chemicals were being stored too close to residential compounds, and whether firefighters may have triggered the blasts, possibly because they were unaware the warehouse contained chemicals combustible on contact with water. The massive explosions Wednesday happened about 40 minutes after reports of a fire at the warehouse and after an initial wave of firefighters arrived and, reportedly, doused some of the area with water.
Authorities on Saturday pulled out one survivor from a shipping container, state media reported. His identity was not immediately known. Television video showed the man being carried out on a sketcher by a group of soldiers wearing gas masks.
Authorities were keeping residents, journalists and other people not involved in the disaster response outside a 3-kilometer (1.8-mile) radius around the site of the explosions to carry out what media reports said was a clean-up of chemical contamination from sodium cyanide, a toxic chemical that becomes combustible on contact with water or even damp air.
Burning flames were spotted on Saturday, and explosions were reported by witnesses and state media.
In one case, heavy smoke from a fire engulfing several cars rose up as high as 10 meters (yards), accompanied by at least five explosions.
Police and military personnel manned checkpoints on roads leading to the blast sites, and helicopters were seen hovering in the overcast sky. The air had a metallic chemical smell, and there was uneasiness over rain forecasts, although it was warm and windy.
Meanwhile, family members of missing firefighters disrupted the latest news conference about the disaster, demanding to know whether their loved ones were still alive.
“(The authorities) didn’t notify us at all,” said Liu Huan, whose son Liu Chuntao has been missing since late Wednesday. “Our son is a firefighter, and there was a team of firefighters who lost contact. We couldn’t contact him.”
Liu Longwang said she had not heard a word on her son Liu Ziqiao, also a firefighter. “We are extremely worried,” she said. “He’s just turned 18.”
State media reported that the casualties of the first three squads of firefighters to respond and of a neighborhood police station have not yet been fully determined, suggesting that the death toll could go up further.
Tianjin Fire Department head Zhou Tian said at a news conference Friday that the explosions occurred just as reinforcements had arrived on the scene and were getting to work. “There was no chance to escape, and that’s why the casualties were so severe,” he said. “We’re now doing all we can to rescue the missing.”
One surviving firefighter, 19-year-old Zhou Ti, was found Friday morning and taken to a hospital. Zhou Ti and Zhou Tian are unrelated.
Li Yonghan, a doctor at Teda Hospital, called Zhou’s survival “miraculous” and said Zhou escaped death mainly because he was covered by his fallen comrades. Zhou had massive injuries, including burns and leg cuts.
From his hospital bed, Zhou told state broadcaster CCTV that the fire was spreading out of control. “I was knocked onto the ground at the first blast,” recalled Zhou, his eyes swollen and closed. “I covered my head and don’t know what happened after that.”
Lin Yujie, who lives in a nearby residential complex, said when he initially heard the blasts Wednesday night he thought they were a massive air strike.
“It was just a sea of fire,” Lin recalled. “We were really worried that there would be a second or third explosion and what we would do then.”
As details of the blasts and the rescue efforts surface, members of the public have been raising questions about whether fire commanders had erred in prematurely sending firefighters into a highly dangerous zone and using water to put out flames on the site known to have stored a variety of hazardous chemicals, including sodium cyanide and calcium carbide, which become flammable on contact with water.
Local officials also have been hard-pressed to explain why authorities permitted hazardous goods warehouses so close to residential complexes and critical infrastructure, clearly in violation of the Chinese rule that hazmat storage should be 1,000 meters (yards) away from homes and public structures.