China blast zone evacuated after sodium cyanide found
New explosions and fires rocked the Chinese port city of Tianjin on Saturday, as one survivor was pulled out and authorities ordered evacuations to clean up chemical contamination more than two days after a fire and a series of blasts set off the disaster, agencies report.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, while calling for improvements in workplace safety, said authorities should learn the lessons paid for with blood in Wednesday’s warehouse blasts.
Residents have been evacuated from a 1.5-mile zone after deadly sodium cyanide was found at the site of explosions that killed at least 104 people.
The evacuation came after a change in the wind direction.
It was not clear from media reports how many people were evacuated.
Chinese authorities now fear chemical contamination despite earlier assurances that the air quality remained safe.
Sodium cyanide, which can be fatal when ingested or inhaled, was found “roughly east of the blast site”, according to police.
It was also not immediately clear how much had been found or how great a risk it posed.
Thousands of residents had already been moved to nearby schools after homes and apartment buildings were damaged, mostly by the shock waves from the explosions.
One of those schools is among the areas evacuated and residents have been advised to wear long trousers and face masks.
Burning flames were spotted 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.
Angry relatives of fire-fighters missing in the catastrophe stormed a government news conference to demand information on their loved ones.
“We have gone to each and every hospital by ourselves and not found them,” said Wang Baoxia, whose elder brother is missing. “There is no government official willing to meet us. Not even one.”
“(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 fire-fighter, and there was a team of fire-fighters who lost contact. We couldn’t contact him.”
Liu Longwang, another woman, said she had not heard any word on her son Liu Ziqiao, also a fire-fighter. “We are extremely worried,” she said. “He’s just turned 18.”
State media reported that the casualties of the first three squads of fire-fighters to respond and of a neighborhood police station have not yet been determined, suggesting that the death toll could go up.
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.”
In one piece of encouraging news, a 50-year-old man was rescued 50 meters away from the blast zone. The man was suffering from a burnt respiratory tract but was in a stable condition after surviving three days in a shipping container.
Another bright moment came early Friday when Zhou Ti, a 19-year-old fire-fighter, was pulled from the zone 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.”
A 27-year-old fire-fighter Yang Kekai recalled from his hospital bed the moment chemical containers exploded around him.
“Flames were leaping ten meters high as we approached the containers in the warehouse,” said Yang who was among the first batch of fire-fighters to arrive responding to an emergency call at 10.30 pm.
Standing in formation, Yang and his fellow fire-fighters started using hydraulic guns to douse the flames. He had positioned himself about 60 meters away from the fire point while a few others were just 30 meters away.
“We managed to control the spread of the fire, but, to our surprise, the containers exploded 15 minutes after we started spraying water,” he said.
“I found myself flying in the air, my heart skipped a beat and I thought I was dying,” said Yang who passed out as he landed on a green belt five or six meters away.
Lin Yujie, who lives in a nearby residential complex, said he initially thought of a massive air strike at the time of the blasts.
“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 fire-fighters 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, in violation of the Chinese rule that they should be at least 1,000 meters (yards) away from homes and public structures.