At least two explosions in one of northern China's most important ports has killed 44 people, including 12 firefighters, while injuring hundreds and causing millions of dollars in property damage on Wednesday. Many, including a number of firefighters, remain missing.
The first explosion took place around 11:30 pm, leading to a fire visible about a mile away. Many observers saw—then felt—a massive second blast around midnight, with smartphone camera footage showing some tumbling to the floor in fear. That second event resulted in a mushroom cloud, and broke window glass and damaged buildings several kilometers away, according to official reports. Fires burned well into Thursday after the explosions. About 500 people were being treated in hospitals as of late Thursday.
The cause of a fire, which some official reports said was burning prior to the explosions, is not yet known, but crews are now trying to remove 700 tons of sodium cyanide from the area. Sodium cyanide is most commonly used in gold extraction, and is considered highly poisonous.
The explosions took place at the port of Tianjin, in the warehouse of a dangerous goods handling company, Tianjin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai International Logistics Co. Ltd., according to the Xinhua News Agency. Company executives have been detained as part of the official investigation into the blasts, the People's Daily newspaper reported. A scapegoat could face the death penalty in such a case, if precedent is any indicator. The company could also be on the hook for millions in damages, including the value of hundreds of new cars damaged or destroyed by the explosions.
The port, situated on the western edge of the Bohai Sea, is located in the Binhai New Area, an industrial zone in northern Tianjin. The port serves not only the city of Tianjin, but also nearby Beijing, about 100 miles away. Tianjin has a population of 14 million people, and like neighboring Beijing, is administered directly by China's central government.
Scenes of devastation, provided both by official photographers and unofficial drones that recorded what looked like an apocalyptic wasteland, seemed to stun most who saw them. Industrial accidents in China are not uncommon, but are usually more environmental in nature, and far less spectacular.
The incident's low death toll, at least so far, also kept criticism or speculation that area was somehow mismanaged mostly off of social media. That could certainly change if the number of casualties were to rise suddenly, or if company executives were found to have handled dangerous materials improperly.
Other recent industrial accidents include an explosion at a chemical plant in Zhengzhou in central China that killed 19 people in April, and 119 deaths that occurred when a fire swept through a poultry-processing plant in northeast China's Jilin province in 2013.
Timing of this latest disaster couldn't be worse. China devalued its currency by almost two percent this week, its worst drop in 20 years. Beijing is gearing up for a military parade on September 3 and celebration of the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, and has been busy imposing pollution and security restrictions to ensure everything goes smoothly.
Until terrorism—a remote possibility—is officially ruled out, uneasiness will likely grip China's leaders, who ironically in the seaside town of Beidaihe, about an hour north of the site of the blasts, for an annual summer convocation.