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Chemical clean-up starts as new blasts rock Tianjin

Published 15/08/2015

The explosion in the port city of Tianjin saw many people lose loved ones and their homesing
The explosion in the port city of Tianjin saw many people lose loved ones and their homesing

New explosions have rocked the Chinese port of Tianjin as teams scrambled to clear dangerous chemical contamination and found several more bodies to bring the death toll to 104 from massive blasts earlier in the week.

Angry relatives of missing firefighters stormed a government news conference to demand information on their loved ones, who have not been seen since a fire and rapid succession of blasts late on Wednesday at a warehouse for hazardous chemicals in a mostly industrial area.

The death toll in the ensuing inferno included at least 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, 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of Beijing. One additional survivor was found on Saturday.

Chinese media reported that the warehouse was storing 700 tons of sodium cyanide - 70 times more than it should have been holding at one time - and that authorities were rushing to clean it up.

Sodium cyanide is a toxic chemical that can form a flammable gas upon contact with water.

Authorities also detected the highly toxic hydrogen cyanide in the air at levels slightly above safety levels at two locations in the afternoon, an official said. But the contamination was no longer detected later on Saturday.

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 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.

Rescuers on Saturday pulled out one survivor from a shipping container. Television showed the man being carried out by soldiers wearing gas masks.

Authorities were keeping residents, journalists and other people outside a three-kilometre (1.8-mile) radius around the site of the explosions in what media reports said was an operation to clean up the sodium cyanide.

Flames were spotted in the disaster area on Saturday, and explosions were reported. Police and military personnel manned checkpoints on roads leading to the blast sites, and helicopters were seen hovering in the overcast sky.

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 on Wednesday. "Our son is a firefighter, and there was a team of firefighters who lost contact. We couldn't contact him."

State media reported that the casualties of the first three squads of firefighters to respond and of a district police station have not yet been fully determined, suggesting that the death toll could rise further.

Tianjin Fire Department head Zhou Tian said at a news conference 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 on Friday and taken to a hospital.

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."

Local officials 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 metres from homes and public structures.

Pope Francis, meanwhile, offered his prayers to the victims of the disaster in remarks to thousands of people gathered in St Peter's Square, Rome.

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