One week after explosions rocked a warehouse in the Chinese city of Tianjin killing at least 114 people, the Chinese government has detained ten executives of the company that owned the warehouse.
Those detained include Li Liang, the president of Tianjin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai International Logistics Company; vice president of the company, Cao Haijun; and Song Qi, the company’s chief financial officer. Additionally, Yang Dongliang, director of the State Administration of Work Safety, was suspected of “severe violation of discipline and law” – a phrase often used when describing corruption cases.
Beijing pledged to identify and punish the top officials connected to the disaster – which is the single deadliest incident for firefighters since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In addition to the confirmed deaths of 114 people, 70 people are still missing, including 64 firefighters and five policemen. 31 of the 114 bodies have yet to be identified.
The blown up warehouse temporarily stored chemicals and other materials after they arrived at the port but before they were transported to their final destination. Because the stored chemicals were essentially in transit, it made it very difficult to identify and track the contents of the barrels of chemicals.
It is known however that at the time of the explosion, several hundred tons of sodium cyanide were stored at the facility. The chemical is highly toxic and rapidly kills humans once it comes into contact with water.
Questions are now being raised regarding whether the rescue crews were trained properly and sufficiently equipped to deal with an emergency at a chemical storage warehouse. The People’s Daily reported that, “Many are questioning about the number of people killed in the blasts, the emergency assistance provided, and the handling of the aftermath. Some are even suspicious, with rumors circling.” The newspaper further reported that, “In the face of an accident that has caused heavy losses of life and property, the central government’s attitude is clear and resolute: a thorough investigation and severe punishment are beyond any doubt.”
Beijing is pointing the blame directly at the company’s executives and local officials rather than possible failures in the Chinese system of chemical storage and crisis management.
Local officials have yet to provide definite answers on the cause of the fire and resulting explosions. Chemical industry experts have opined that the blast was likely triggered by a flammable substance. Others have proffered that extremely hot summer temperatures may have contributed to the volatile situation in addition to a possible chemical reaction initiated once firefighters sprayed water on the chemicals.
Zhong Shengjun, a social scientist studying industrial safety at Northeastern University in Shenyang stated that, “we can’t rule it out that when firefighters tried to cool down the area, they sprayed some water on some alkali metals that should not be in contact with water. It’s partly because the firefighters couldn’t contact the executives of the warehouse in time so as to know exactly where different chemicals were placed. . . This disaster has exposed several problems, such as the poor management of dangerous chemicals. In theory, they should be stored by category and have clear signs placed on their containers indicating their basic features.”