Saturday, 15 August 2015

Death toll from Chinese port blasts hits 85, including 21 firefighters

The death toll from an inferno and huge explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin climbed to 85 on Saturday with hundreds of people injured and some still unaccounted for.

The count includes 21 of the more than 1,000 firefighters who responded to the fire and blasts, according to The Associated Press.

A rapid succession of explosions late Wednesday - one equal to 21 tons of TNT - were sparked by a fire at what authorities said were shipping containers containing hazardous material at a warehouse, and they struck a mostly industrial zone late at night - otherwise the death toll could have been much higher. But the warehouse was close enough to residences to appear out of compliance with safety regulations, raising questions about whether the facility had properly been authorized.

The toll included at least 21 firefighters among the more than 1,000 sent to the disaster, local officials told a news conference Saturday. Firefighters initially responded to a fire at the warehouse and many of them apparently were killed by a series of explosions triggered 40 minutes after the fire was reported.

Tianjin Fire Department head Zhou Tian said at a news conference Friday that the explosions occurred just as reinforcements had arrived on the scene and were just getting to work."There was no chance to escape, and that's why the casualties were so severe," the fire head said. "We're now doing all we can to rescue the missing."

NPR's Robert Siegel spoke Friday with David Leggett, a consultant on hazardous chemical risk assessments, about the chemicals involved in the explosion and the ongoing risks they might pose.

"There are three chemicals that are confirmed: calcium carbide, potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate. And those three together if left alone and not in the presence of fire are relatively stable. "However, in the presence of a fire — a very big fire, as we believe there was — the first thing that probably happens is that the containers of the calcium carbide probably start to fail; at the same time one can expect to see that the water supplies in the warehouse may be beginning to fail. And if we get calcium carbide — especially if it's hot — mixed with water, we form a very, very flammable and highly explosive gas called acetylene."

Leggett said Chinese authorities — unlike their U.S. counterparts — may have lacked thorough documentation of the chemicals moving through the country's transit facilities, and that the detection of sodium cyanide in a nearby sewer could be concerning.

"Depending upon the amount of sodium cyanide that is there, I would be concerned about the residues of sodium cyanide that may have been distributed across the area, and how that cleanup will be managed," he says.

Chinese police are clearing everyone within three miles of a fire in the port city of Tianjin over fears of chemical poisoning.

Police confirmed that highly toxic sodium cyanide was present near the site, raising fears that spread of the chemical could cause more casualties.

Fire broke out and more explosions were heard Saturday morning at the site of Wednesday's massive explosions. Searchers on Friday night uncovered more bodies in the warehouse district of Tianjin, China, state media reported, raising the death toll to 85.

"Out of consideration for toxic substances spreading, the masses nearby have been asked to evacuate," Xinhua is quoted in The Guardian.

Saturday 15 August 2015


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