TIANJIN, CHINA: The death toll from giant blasts in a northern Chinese port city has risen to 85, officials said Saturday, as firefighters battled to finally extinguish the days-long blaze at the devastated industrial site.
The explosions in Tianjin days earlier — starkly depicted in images of a giant fireball and a vast radius of destruction — have sparked concerns among locals who fear being cloaked in a toxic cloud.
Furious residents and victims’ relatives railed against authorities outside a news conference for keeping them in the dark as criticism over transparency mounted.
There were 21 firefighters among the dead, authorities said, and 721 people had been hospitalised, 25 of whom were in critical condition.
Residents and relatives were prevented from entering an official press conference on Saturday and could be heard shouting outside.
“Nobody has told us anything, we’re in the dark, there is no news at all,” screamed one middle-aged woman, as she was dragged away by security personnel.
China has a dismal industrial safety record and the disaster has raised fears of toxic contamination after officials said they were unable to identify precisely what chemicals were at the site at the time.
Tianjin work safety official Gao Huaiyou listed a host of possible substances at the briefing, adding that the firm’s recent large exports had included sodium bisulfide, magnesium, sodium, potassium nitrate, ammonium nitrate, and sodium cyanide, among others.
“We believe there should still be a lot stored at the terminal areas,” he said.
Personnel from sodium cyanide producers had been called in “because they are experts on the chemical’s nature and the ways to deal with it”, he added.
Questions have also been raised over whether firefighters responding to an initial blaze at the warehouse could have contributed to the detonations by spraying water over substances that react explosively to it.
Chinese media and environment group Greenpeace have warned that a host of potentially dangerous chemicals may have been present.
More than 200 nuclear and biochemical experts from the Chinese military were also deployed to Tianjin — which has a population of 15 million — to inspect the site.
Despite official reassurances over air quality, residents have expressed scepticism and some police have been seen in the city wearing full-face gas masks.
Authorities have only released limited information about the accident, a criticism often levelled at Chinese officials in the aftermath of disasters, and restricted discussion of it online.