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China explosions: Firefighter rescued from Tianjin blast zone

Rescuers pull out a firefighter who was trapped for 32 hours after responding to a fire and huge explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin.

At least 21 firefighters among the 56 people reported dead

Firefighters rescue 19-year-old colleague amidst destruction 1:04

Rescuers pulled out a firefighter who was trapped for 32 hours after responding to a fire and huge explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin as authorities dealt Friday with a fire still smouldering amid potentially dangerous chemicals.

A rapid succession of explosions late Wednesday — one equal to 21 tons of TNT — killed at least 56 people, injured more than 720 and left several firefighters missing.

They were sparked by a fire at what authorities said were shipping containers containing hazardous material at a warehouse, and they struck a mostly industrial zone late at night — otherwise the death toll could have been much higher. But the warehouse was close enough to residences to appear out of compliance with safety regulations, raising questions about whether the facility had properly been authorized.

The toll included at least 21 firefighters among the more than 1,000 sent to the disaster. Firefighters initially responded to a fire at the warehouse and many of them apparently were killed by a series of explosions triggered 40 minutes after the fire was reported.
Chinese firefighter Zhou Ti is treated in Taida Hospital in Tianjin, China, on Friday. He was rescued about 32 hours after Tianjin's port was devastated by huge blasts. (Chinatopix via Associated Press)

Zhou Ti, a 19-year-old firefighter, was pulled from the zone at about dawn Friday and taken to a hospital, where he was treated for face, chest and foot injuries, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

From his hospital bed, Zhou told CCTV the fire was spreading out of control. "I was knocked onto the ground at the first blast," recalled Zhou, his eyes closed. "I covered my head and don't know what happened after that."

'No chance to escape'

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 just getting to work.

"There was no chance to escape, and that's why the casualties were so severe," the fire head said. "We're now doing all we can to rescue the missing." Zhou Tian and Zhou Ti are not related.

The rescue of the young firefighter was a bright moment in a day otherwise clouded by mistrust and unanswered questions. Local officials have been hard-pressed to explain why authorities permitted hazardous goods warehouses so close to residential complexes and critical infrastructure. They also have been publicly reticent about suspicions that firefighters may have sparked the explosions by spraying water on volatile chemicals.
A man walks on Thursday through the site of an explosion at a warehouse in northeastern China's Tianjin municipality. Rescuers have pulled a firefighter from an industrial zone about 32 hours after it was devastated by huge blasts. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

Hazardous chemical warehouses must be at least 1,000 metres away from public buildings, highways, railways and industrial enterprises under regulations enacted by China's State Administration of Work Safety in 2001.

But Google Earth shows that Ruihai's two hazmat warehouses are less than 500 metres from the S11 Haibin Expressway, and within 500 metres of a 1.1-million-square-foot apartment complex built by China Vanke Co., one of China's largest developers.

Vanke said it acquired the land before Ruihai Logistics began loading toxic substances in its warehouses one block away. "The land was near normal logistics warehouses when we acquired it in April 2010," the company said in an emailed statement. "We were not aware they were later transformed into warehouses for hazardous material."

The housing development's windows were shattered and the side facing the explosions singed. The entire complex was evacuated and falls within a one- to two-kilometre zone around the blast site that has been cordoned off by police.

Mistrust of government

Local officials have publicly reassured a skeptical public that the blasts have not contaminated the air, but many residents weren't taking chances and could be seen Friday wearing air-filtering masks. "I don't usually wear a mask but I don't quite trust what the government says," Ma Wiehan said from behind her mask as she walked with her six-month-old daughter. "I'm doing this for my child."

Questions about whether firefighters may have sparked the blasts have been circulating in the Chinese media. One report suggested that water used by first responders may have come into contact with a chemical that explodes on contact with water, but an official also is quoted as saying the first wave of firefighters could not have sparked the blasts.

Many of the fire trucks seen at the site hours after the blasts use a kind of firefighting foam.

Authorities have not said what caused the explosions, saying only that they originated at the warehouse owned by Ruihai International Logistics. Its website says the company is authorized to handle chemicals ranging from flammable gases and liquids, including compressed natural gas and ethyl acetate, to chemicals including sodium cyanide and calcium carbide.
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      However, the warehouse was a transit point and authorities have no clear picture of what was there at the time of the blasts. Records at the site were destroyed in the disaster, meaning that authorities must rely on customs documents, said Gao Huaiyou, deputy director of occupational safety in Tianjin.

      Fire officials so far have confirmed only that calcium carbide, potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate were at the warehouse.

      Zhou said further firefighting efforts must go slowly because of the potentially complex mix of chemicals at the site.

      "Many types of different materials with different characteristics are mixed together and could at any time result in a chemical reaction or explosion," Zhou said.

      Corrections

      • An earlier version of this story said calcium carbide is explosive on contact with water. If fact, when calcium carbide, when mixed with water, will produce acetylene gas, which is flammable and explosive.
        Aug 17, 2015 9:57 AM ET

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