Death toll from Tianjin explosion rising

  • 16/08/2015
The site of Wednesday night's explosions, at Binhai new district in Tianjin, China (Reuters)
The site of Wednesday night's explosions, at Binhai new district in Tianjin, China (Reuters)

The death toll from the giant chemical explosions in the Chinese port of Tianjin has reached 104, the Xinhua news agency says, as area residents were evacuated over fears of cyanide contamination.

A days-long fire intensified at the hazardous goods storage facility with a series of new explosions sending thick black smoke into the air on Saturday.

Xinhua said the death toll had climbed from 85 to 104, quoting local officials.

According to rescue headquarters, 722 people have been hospitalised, 58 of whom are in a critical or serious condition.

Twenty-one firefighters were among the dead, authorities say.

Three days after the gigantic explosions sent a huge fireball into the sky and left a vast swathe of destruction, President Xi Jinping issued a statement warning authorities to learn the "extremely profound" safety lessons highlighted by the tragedy.

He said the blasts and a recent string of accidents had "exposed severe problems in the work safety sector".

Xinhua said he called on authorities to keep "people's interest first" and seek "safe growth" in avoiding such accidents.

The decision to relocate anyone within three kilometres of the site came despite official assurances the disaster had not released dangerous levels of toxic substances into the environment.

However, Xinhua said area residents had been evacuated "in fear of chemical pollutants in the air".

The Beijing News said armed police were carrying out the evacuation after sodium cyanide was found at the site.

At a barrier on the edge of the evacuation zone, masks were distributed to emergency personnel and police turned back anyone else, as at least 20 fire engines streamed in.

Officials said earlier that specialists from sodium cyanide producers were being sent in to the devastated industrial area.

Reports have said there could have been as much as 700 tonnes of the substance - exposure to which can be fatal - at the site.

Soldiers trained in anti-chemical warfare techniques were also deployed.

Authorities have struggled to identify the substances present at the scene, sparking fears and scepticism among residents of Tianjin, which has a population of 15 million.

At a news conference, Tianjin work safety official Gao Huaiyou listed a host of possible substances that may have been at the site at the time of the explosions.

Questions have been raised over whether firefighters responding to an initial blaze at the warehouse could have contributed to the detonations by spraying water over substances that react explosively to it.

China has a dismal industrial safety record, and authorities have released only limited information about the accident, a criticism often levelled at Chinese officials in the aftermath of disasters.

Furious victims' relatives railed against officials outside a news conference Saturday over the lack of transparency and information.

"Nobody has told us anything, we're in the dark, there is no news at all," screamed one middle-aged woman, as she was dragged away by security personnel.

The People's Daily said earlier that the facility's construction "clearly violated" safety rules, in particular those that require warehouses stocking dangerous materials to be at least one kilometre from surrounding public buildings and main roads.

More than 360 social media accounts have been shut down or suspended for "spreading rumours" about the blasts, Xinhua reported, citing the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC).