Tianjin still reeling from huge blast

Tianjin’s deputy mayor says there was 700 tonnes of deadly chemical sodium cyanide stored at warehouse

Photo by: BBC
Photo by: BBC

Hundreds of residents displaced by huge explosions last week in China's port city of Tianjin demanded compensation on Monday, as authorities worked to complete a sweep of the blast site for dangerous chemicals.

The death toll from the two blasts last Wednesday rose to 114, officials said. More than 700 people were injured and 70 are still missing, most of them fire fighters, the official Xinhua news agency said.

The explosions sent massive fireballs into the sky and hurled burning debris across the industrial area at the world's 10th largest port, burning out buildings and shattering windows kilometres away.

Xinhua reported there had been another small explosion on Monday. Dark smoke had cleared after the blast but flames could still be seen.

As teams specialized in handling hazardous chemicals scrambled to clean up the blast site, Tianjin's deputy mayor, He Shushan, confirmed there was about 700 tonnes of the deadly chemical sodium cyanide stored at the warehouse that blew up.

He said that, "after searching, most was concentrated in the core" blast area. Workers would finish a search of a 3km (2 mile) perimeter to identify and clean up dangerous chemicals by the end of the day, he said.

About 200 emotional protesters gathered outside a hotel where officials were briefing journalists.

"This is not a demonstration. This is simply our only channel to attract the government's attention. Up until now they have not acknowledged us at all," said Li Jiao, whose home was close to the blast site.

Some 6,300 people have been evacuated from around the blast site in Tianjin, a city of about 15 million and the gateway to China's industrial northeast.

About three dozen police and military personnel blocked the crowd from entering the hotel. The protesters chanted "buy back (homes)" and carried signs that read "fix our homes, that's our demand," but there were no clashes.

Another protester, also surnamed Li, said he had taken out an 800,000 yuan ($125,000) loan to buy an apartment that was now so badly damaged it was leaning over. He said his family had not moved in before the blast but they would now never return for fear of long-term health risks

"Most of the people who bought those homes are young, white-collar workers like me. It isn't a small amount of money for us," he said.

China's top prosecutor, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, has opened an investigation into the warehouse explosions.

Tianjin deputy mayor He said officials were confident those responsible would be held to account but stopped short of discussing compensation.

"We believe that the investigation team can determine the cause of the accident, in short order determine and firmly punish violations of law, and in this way ... give victims and the people a full explanation," He said.

Officials said environmental standards were still "basically guaranteed" and that there were contingency plans to prevent possible rainfall from creating dangerous gases or spreading contamination.

Industrial accidents are not uncommon in China after three decades of fast economic growth.