TIANJIN: At least 44 people were killed and 400 injured when two huge explosions tore through an industrial area where toxic chemicals and gas were stored in the northeast Chinese port city of Tianjin, state media said on Thursday.
The blasts, so large that they were seen by satellites in space, sent shockwaves through apartment blocks kilometers away in the port city of 15 million people.
Internet videos showed fireballs shooting into the sky and the U.S. Geological Survey registered the blasts late on Wednesday as seismic events.
Vast areas of the port the 10th largest in the world were devastated, crumpled shipping containers were thrown around like match sticks, hundreds of new cars were torched and port buildings left as burnt-out shells, Reuters witnesses said.
“I was sleeping when our windows and doors suddenly shook as we heard explosions outside. I first thought it was an earthquake,” Guan Xiang, who lives 7 km (4 miles) away from the explosion site, told Reuters by telephone.
Guan, 24, said he saw flames and a mushroom cloud in the sky as he and other residents scrambled to get out of the building.
China Central Television (CCTV) said at least 17 people were killed, including nine firefighters, although casualty numbers were confused among state media outlets.
The official People’s Daily, citing reports, said on its microblog that 11 firefighters had been killed.
The state-run Beijing News cited Tianjin fire authorities as saying they had lost contact with 36 firefighters, and that another 33 were among the hundreds of people being treated in nearby hospitals.
At least 32 of those in hospital were in critical condition, state media said.
President Xi Jinping demanded that authorities “make full effort to rescue and treat the injured and ensure the safety of people and their property”.
Xi said in a statement carried by official media that those responsible should be “severely handled”.
Anxious residents rushed to hospitals to seek news about injured loved ones. Dozens of police guarded the entrance of the TEDA hospital, a Reuters witness said.
Pictures on Chinese media websites showed residents and workers, some bleeding, fleeing their homes. State news agency Xinhua said people had been hurt by broken glass and other flying debris.
Fires were still burning after dawn. A Reuters witness said gray clouds of smoke billowed above the blast site and several trucks carrying paramilitary police wearing masks to protect them from potentially toxic smoke headed to the area.
The blasts shattered windows in buildings and cars and knocked down walls in a 2-km radius around the site.
Photographs on Chinese news websites showed burned-out cars inside a multi-story car park at a logistics base at Tianjin Port.
Video posted on YouTube from what appeared to be an apartment building some distance from the scene showed an initial blast followed by a second, much bigger, explosion. Shockwaves hit the building seconds later.
“Our building is shaking. Is this an atomic bomb?” said a frenzied voice inside.
Despite the devastation, the port was operating normally, a port official said. Tianjin port is the gateway to northern China’s industrial belt.
CCTV said workers had temporarily ceased efforts to put out remaining fires by mid-morning because it was unclear what types of chemicals were stored in the area.
Other outlets said a chemical specialist team had been sent to the site.
CCTV said about 100 fire trucks had been sent to the scene.
Several fire trucks had been destroyed and nearby firefighters wept as they worked to extinguish flames, the Beijing News said.
Xinhua said the explosions, the first equivalent to 3 tonnes of TNT and the second to 21 tonnes of TNT, ripped through a warehouse.
It identified the owner of the warehouse as Tianjin Dongjiang Port Ruihai International Logistics.
The company’s website said it was a government-approved firm specializing in handling “dangerous goods”. Company officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
According to an assessment by government environmental inspectors published in 2014, the facility was designed to store several dangerous and toxic chemicals including butanone, an explosive industrial solvent, sodium cyanide and compressed natural gas.
CCTV said at least one person at a “relevant company” had been detained.
Industrial accidents are not uncommon in China following three decades of breakneck economic growth.
A blast at an auto parts factory in eastern China killed 75 people a year ago when a room filled with metal dust exploded.