Authorities ordered a wider evacuation in the northeastern Chinese city of Tianjin on Saturday after new explosions sent plumes of smoke over an industrial site obliterated by chemical blasts earlier in the week.
Tianjin police said they had been told to evacuate everyone within about 3 miles of the blast site, according to Beijing News, a state-controlled Chinese newspaper. Just before noon, it was reported that new explosions and fires had erupted, creating more concerns about exposure to toxic chemicals in Tianjin, a city of 15 million people.
Also on Saturday, a local newspaper quoted a police source as saying that highly toxic sodium cyanide had been confirmed at the center of the blast site – a discovery that may have contributed to the evacuation order. China’s Xinhua news agency later posted on Twitter that no cyanide had been detected “in the air.”
The new explosions and fires, coming after the site’s blazes had largely been extinguished, renewed questions about the ability of authorities to handle China’s latest industrial emergency. Government officials were already under pressure to explain why a chemical storage warehouse had been allowed to operate near residential development and whether firefighters had been trained to respond to a chemical fire.
Some emergency workers reportedly tried to douse Wednesday’s initial blaze with water, which experts say may have contributed to the explosions.
Those blasts, which rocked the Tianjin Binhai New Area late Wednesday night, devastated a wide area and disrupted one of China’s largest ports and economic hubs. The Tianjin port, nearly 100 miles southeast of Beijing, handles much of northeast China’s shipments of iron ore, oil and automobiles.
Photographs show that hundreds of those automobiles were incinerated by the blasts, one of which was so large it could be seen from space.
According to updated figures late Friday, 104 people were confirmed dead, and at least 720 people have been hospitalized.
Of the dead, 21 were firefighters. Xinhua news has called it possibly the highest death toll among fire crews since 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party took control of China.
According to state media, the explosions occurred at a hazardous materials storage warehouse owned by the Ruihai Logistics Co. Police say the main chemicals in the warehouse before the explosion were ammonium nitrate, potassium nitrate and calcium carbide.
On Friday, chemical risk expert David Leggett told NPR that water sprayed on calcium carbide could have created acetylene, an explosive gas that may have triggered the resulting blast.
On Saturday, official concerns about sodium cyanide may have prompted the wider evacuation. Used in extracting gold, sodium cyanide is highly toxic. Some state media had previously reported it had been detected in wastewater leaving the site.
More than 1,000 rescuers are reportedly at or near the blast zone, including a team trained in handling biochemical materials. On Saturday afternoon, state broadcaster CCTV reported that crews had rescued a man from a container just 150 feet from the blast site. He apparently had survived for more than 3 days after the initial fireballs.