TIANJIN, China (4th UPDATE) – A series of enormous explosions at an industrial area in the Chinese port of Tianjin killed at least 50 people and injured hundreds, state media reported Thursday, August 13, unleashing a fireball that ripped through the night sky.
An Agence France-Presse reporter at the scene saw shattered glass up to 3 kilometers (two miles) from the blast site, after a shipment of explosives detonated in a warehouse, raining debris on the city and starting huge fires.
Images showed a monumental blast soaring into the air, walls of flame enveloping buildings, ranks of burned-out cars, and shipping containers scattered like children’s building blocks.
Paramedics stretchered the wounded into the city’s hospitals as doctors bandaged up victims, many of them covered in blood after the impact of the explosion was felt for several kilometers, even being picked up by a Japanese weather satellite.
“The fireball was huge, maybe as much as 100 meters tall,” said 27-year-old Huang Shiting, who lives close to the site.
“I heard the first explosion and everyone went outside, then there was a series of more explosions, windows shattered and a lot of people who were inside were hurt and came running out, bleeding,” he told Agence France-Presse.
Images obtained by Agence France-Presse showed residents, some partially clothed, running for shelter on a street strewn with debris.
According to the official news agency Xinhua, 44 are dead, among then 12 firefighters. Citing rescue officials, Xinhua also said 520 people had been hospitalised, 66 of them critically injured.
At a hospital in the city a doctor wept over the remains of a firefighter still in uniform, his skin blackened from smoke, as he was wheeled by along with two other bodies.
Scores of firefighters were already on the scene before the explosion, responding to reports of a fire.
Plumes of smoke
Plumes of smoke still billowed over buildings hours after the blast, which occurred shortly before midnight local time.
Communist Party newspaper the People’s Daily said in a social media post that there were people trapped by the fire, but CCTV said efforts to put out the blaze had been suspended as it was not clear what dangerous items remained in the storage facility.
Specialized anti-chemical warfare troops are being sent to the site, the broadcaster added.
It was not clear what caused the shipment of explosives to detonate inside a storage container.
Police took into custody the head of the company involved, Tianjin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai International Logistics, local authorities said.
Between 300 and 400 injured people arrived at one single hospital, according to the Beijing News, which cited a worker at another facility saying there were too many patients to count.
Mei Xiaoya, 10, and her mother were turned away from the first hospital they went to because there were too many people, she told Agence France-Presse.
All the windows of her home and the door were destroyed in the explosion, she said.
“I’m not afraid, it’s just a scratch,” she said pointing to the bandage on her arm. “But mum was hurt badly, she couldn’t open her eyes.”
Most of those who arrived overnight had been discharged, hospital staff said.
The magnitude of the first explosion was the equivalent of detonating three tonnes of TNT, the China Earthquake Networks Centre said on its verified Weibo account, followed by a second blast equal to 21 tonnes.
CCTV said in a Twitter post that President Xi Jinping had urged “all-out efforts to rescue victims and extinguish the fire”.
China has a dismal industrial safety record as some factory and warehouse owners evade regulations to save money and pay off corrupt officials to look the other way.
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 northern Hebei province.
And at least 71 were killed in an explosion at a car parts factory in Kunshan, near Shanghai, in August last year.
Tianjin, about 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Beijing, is one of China’s biggest cities, with a population of nearly 15 million people according to 2013 figures.
A manufacturing center and major port for northern China, it is closely linked to Beijing, with a high-speed train line cutting the travel time between them to only 30 minutes.
Like Shanghai, several countries were granted trading “concessions” there during the 19th and early 20th centuries – settlements which were administered by a foreign power – starting with Britain and France in 1860.
Tianjin’s city center retains a legacy of historic colonial architecture, along with more recent skyscrapers. – Benjamin Haas , AFP / Rappler.com