Authorities ordered a wider evacuation in the northeastern Chinese city of Tianjin on Saturday after new explosions sent plumes of smoke over an industrial site obliterated by chemical blasts earlier in the week.
Tianjin police said they had been instructed to evacuate everyone within a three-kilometer radius of the blast site, according to Beijing News, a state-controlled Chinese newspaper. Just before noon, it was reported that new explosions and fires had erupted, creating more concerns about exposure to toxic chemicals in Tianjin, a city of 15 million people.
Also on Saturday, a local newspaper quoted a police source as saying that highly toxic sodium cyanide had been confirmed at the center of the blast site – a discovery that may have contributed to the evacuation order. China’s Xinhua news agency later tweeted that no cyanide had been detected “in the air.”
The new explosions and fires, coming after the site’s blazes had largely been extinguished, renewed questions about the ability of authorities to handle China’s latest industrial emergency. Government officials were already under pressure to explain why a chemical storage warehouse had been allowed to operate near residential development and whether firefighters had been trained to respond to a chemical fire.
Some responders reportedly tried to douse Wednesday’s initial blaze with water, which experts say may have contributed to the resulting explosions.
Those blasts, which rocked the Tianjin Binhai New Area late on Wednesday night, devastated a wide area and disrupted one of China’s largest ports and economic hubs. The Tianjin port, nearly 100 miles southeast of Beijing, handles much of northeast China’s shipments of iron ore, oil and automobiles.
Photographs that have gone viral worldwide show that hundreds of those automobiles were incinerated by the blasts, one of which was so large it could be seen from space.
According to updated figures late Friday, 104 people have been confirmed dead, and at least 721 people have been hospitalized.
Of the dead, 21 were firefighters. Xinhua news has called it possibly the highest death toll among fire crews since 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party took control of China.
According to state media, the explosions occurred at a hazardous materials storage warehouse owned by the Ruihai Logistics Co., Ltd. Police say the main chemicals in the warehouse prior to the explosion were ammonium nitrate, potassium nitrate and calcium carbide.
On Friday, chemical risk expert David Leggett told NPR News that water sprayed on calcium carbide could have created acetylene, an explosive gas that may have triggered the resulting blast.
On Saturday, official concerns about sodium cyanide may have prompted the wider evacuation. Used in extracting gold, sodium cyanide is highly toxic. Some state media had previously reported it had been detected in wastewater leaving the site.
More than 1,000 rescuers are reportedly at or near the blast zone, including a team trained in handling biochemical materials. On Saturday afternoon, state broadcaster CCTV reported that crews had rescued a man from a container just 150 feet from the blast site. He apparently had survived for more than 3 days after the initial fireballs.
Some Chinese state media have been surprisingly aggressive in probing questions that surround the disaster. China Daily reported Friday that the Ruihai warehouse was permitted in 2011 to store non-hazardous materials, but two years later, “it was converted into a place to reserve hazardous chemical materials.”
That same report noted that, under government regulations, such a warehouse is not permitted closer than 1 kilometer, more than a half mile, away from residential areas, “but the closest residential area to is only 600 meters away.”
Still, China’s Communist Party has sought to keep a lid on some information.
On Friday, CCTV stopped airing a live news conference in Tianjin after reporters asked why a hazardous chemical facility was operating so close to residential areas. China’s propaganda department has also suspended the accounts of three dozen social media bloggers who were challenging official versions of events.
On Saturday, people who said they were relatives of missing firefighters stormed a news conference in Tianjin, demanding information from authorities about their loved ones.
China, the world’s fastest-growing big country, is no stranger to industrial catastrophes. In August last year, an explosion at a car parts factory in Jiangsu province killed 75 people and injured 180 others. A year earlier, an oil pipeline explosion in Shandong province killed 62 people injured 136 others, many of them residents living nearby.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth