The Day After China’s Mega-Blast
Rescue efforts are still underway after massive explosions in Tianjin. But is the Chinese government suppressing the death toll?
HONG KONG — A day after two explosions obliterated a section of Tianjin’s Binhai District , smoke still billows from the blast site. Two more blasts shook the district on Thursday morning. A smaller explosion could be heard later in the afternoon.
The official death toll, as of 8 p.m. Thursday (local time), has risen from 17 to 50. Over 700 people are said to be injured, with 71 in critical condition.
The biographies and portraits of six out of 12 firefighters who died during rescue attempts have been released. At least 36 firefighters are missing. About 1,000 are still battling fires and a cyanide leak, while 700 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, including a team of more than 200 “nuclear, biological, and chemical specialists,” have been deployed in the disaster zone.
It is unclear how many people are still trapped under the rubble.
Perhaps in an attempt to keep the population calm, Tianjin Television Station opted to limit reports on the blasts, and chose to air Korean soap operas instead. But the smoke, fire, and debris were impossible to miss through absent windows. Distant sirens never stopped their wails. The air smelled noxious, contrary to local reports that Tianjin’s air quality at five monitoring stations in the city read was “normal” after the blast.
Tianjin is one of China’s metropolises, a magnet for migrant workers who relocate from rural zones to major cities to work in menial jobs. Those who end up as construction workers often live in prefabricated temporary housing, with multiple workers sharing the space of one box that’s more or less like a shipping container. The chemical blasts that rocked Tianjin scorched paint off cars, shattered glass windows in high-rise buildings, destroyed roofs, and ripped apart the prefab lodgings where the workers were resting after a day’s labor. Among the injured, the migrants are heavily represented, their wounds and trauma caused by shrapnel to their blasted homes.
Greenpeace Asia has revealed that Ruihai International Logistics Company, which operated the warehouse where the blast occurred, stored sodium cyanide, toluene diisocyanate, and calcium carbide in their facilities. All of these chemicals are hazardous to humans upon physical contact. In particular, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call sodium cyanide a “highly toxic chemical asphyxiant. It’s the kind of stuff that is used in commercial fumigation, and at least 700 tons of it were in storage during the first explosion (link in Chinese). The other two chemicals react violently when they come into contact with water, with the risk of combustion.
Tianjin may see thick clouds tomorrow, and rain is expected later in the week, which could result in additional secondary blasts.
In the meantime, rescue crews are using 15 tons of hydrogen peroxide to contain a cyanide leak that is seeping into the ground.
On the street, emotions are running high. During a live broadcast outside a Tianjin hospital on Thursday morning, a CNN reporter was prevented from completing his segment by angry family members and relatives of blast victims. China’s Xinhua News, the country’s official press agency, tweeted, “CNN should stop inaccurate reporting about China,” following it with drivel masquerading as an op-ed.
For a brief moment today, Beijing offered another distraction. When a French man and a Chinese woman were walking in the capital’s Sanlitun neighborhood, they were confronted by a sword-wielding man who allegedly said he “hated Americans.” The couple were attacked, and bystanders rushed into a nearby Starbucks and Uniqlo for shelter, reigniting discussions about a sex tape that was filmed in the clothing store. Police officers approached the swordsman, who promptly surrendered, and the country’s focus turned back to Tianjin’s blast zone.
By late Thursday afternoon, Xinhua News finally stated that rescuers have detected high levels of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide pollutants half a kilometer away from the blast site, but failed to address the air quality in areas further from the disaster zone.
Hundreds or more in Tianjin are now homeless. Even with a local school as shelter, there is little comfort.
Chinese netizens are asking questions about the official death toll released by state-run media. Apple Daily, a newspaper based in Hong Kong, claims that a police officer in Tianjin told one of its reporters that at least 200 are dead, including nearly 120 individuals involved in rescue efforts.
At 9:45 p.m. Thursday, another explosion took place, but over 400 miles away in Anshan, Liaoning Province. It happened at a boiler plant, but no injuries have been reported.