Homes sat only 610 metres from ravaged chemical warehouse
The high-rise apartment complex closest to Tianjin's toxic chemical storage inferno was only 610 metres away, despite Chinese laws requiring a 975m minimum distance from hazardous sites.
The disclosure was among the new details emerging Friday that suggested possible criminal negligence, mixed with rife speculation of an official cover-up, in the aftermath of the fire Wednesday night in Tianjin -- China's third-largest city and a major northeast seaport, about 145 kilometres east of Beijing.
With the death toll rising to at least 56 on Friday, more than 700 hospitalised and an unknown number still missing in the smouldering wreckage, the fire was shaping up as one of China's worst industrial calamities. It appeared to expose the kinds of regulatory lapses that have plagued the country's transformation into a global economic powerhouse.
Government officials, acutely aware of concerns over the fire, have sought to suppress unauthorised information. They seemed unprepared for the tough questions posed at a news conference in Tianjin on Friday, including why hazardous chemicals had been stockpiled so near populated areas. They abruptly ended the conference.
With uncharacteristic defiance, some Chinese news outlets did their own reporting anyway.
Local residents have said they had no idea that any risk had been posed by the warehouses where the fire began, a modest blaze that suddenly exploded in mammoth fireballs. They engulfed office buildings and port facilities, as well as onlookers who had gathered to watch the firefighters at work.
The developers of Vanke Port City, a residential complex that is practically at the incinerated area's doorstep and has now been evacuated indefinitely, said they had been told when they started construction in 2010 that the warehouses in question handled only "common goods".
"We were never notified that the warehouses were modified to handle dangerous goods," a spokesman for the developer said in an email.
According to Chinese law, facilities that handle hazardous materials must be more than 975m from homes and public buildings. Vanke is 610m away.
Suspicions among the populace were further raised by the censorship of information. The vacuum was filled by online speculation about whether the owners of Rui Hai International Logistics, the company that owned the warehouse where the blasts originated, might be connected to senior government leaders.
The government's online corporate registry for Tianjin remained offline nearly two days after the disaster, fueling concerns about a possible cover-up. Officials have said that the blasts disabled the website, which lists details about corporate ownership.
Questions have also been raised about whether the hundreds of firefighters who raced to the scene had been aware of the potential hazards, and whether they had been trained to combat complex and volatile chemical fires. At least 24 of the dead were firefighters.
According to news reports, about 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide, which releases highly toxic gas, had been stored at the Rui Hai warehouse. The site was also licensed to handle calcium carbide, a dangerous compound known to release flammable gases when mixed with water.
One fire official told The Paper, an online Chinese publication, that water might have been used to douse the initial fire. Southern Weekly, a newspaper known for occasional muckraking reporting, quoted a firefighter who said he had received no instructions about the risks of spraying water on the fire.
During a news conference on Thursday, a fire official, Zhou Tian, said that the first fire brigade to reach the scene had been trying to determine the contents of the Rui Hai warehouse, and that a second brigade had arrived moments before the explosions occurred. "They were caught off guard, so the injuries are grave," he said.
Officials have said they cannot determine exactly what kinds of chemicals were stored at the site, saying that the company had provided them with conflicting accounts. Earlier reports in the state news media said that senior company managers had been detained for questioning.
In a rare bit of good news, the state news media reported on Friday that rescue workers had found an injured firefighter at the scene more than a full day after the fire.
Throughout the day, explosions shook the site, including a series of small blasts at dusk that sent columns of alternately black and white smoke into the air.
Bulldozer operators sent by the local railroad company were helping clear paths through an otherworldly jumble of scorched vehicles and battered shipping containers. Nearby, a cordon of paramilitary police officers wearing face masks prevented people from returning to their homes at Vanke Port City.
"I haven't changed my clothes in three days," said one resident, Yuan Ping, 30, a telecommunications worker who described how she lost her dog as she and her family scrambled to safety on the night of the explosions. "A police officer told me the air inside was so toxic that my dog was probably dead."
Another resident reacted angrily to published reports describing a study by the Tianjin Academy of Environmental Sciences that endorsed Rui Hai's plans to expand its business into handling hazardous chemicals. The report, produced last year, claimed that a survey of local residents had found unanimous support for the project. "That's nonsense," the resident said from the hospital where he was being treated for a broken arm. "If we had known, who would have dared to live there?"
With roughly 6,000 residents forced from their homes and countless others unsure whether it was safe to breathe the air, government officials struggled to reassure the public that there was little danger.
According to The Beijing News, Rui Hai at one point submitted documents saying it did not handle dangerous chemicals, but claimed in a subsequent filing that it had received permission from port officials.
The newspaper, quoting a deputy manager at Rui Hai, said workers were unsure what was stored at the site, a way station for chemicals awaiting export or transport to other parts of China. Another employee told China National Radio that workers had received no special training on how to handle dangerous cargo. REUTERS