Five days after two powerful explosions and a chemical fire leveled a port facility in Tianjin, China, on Aug. 12, the fate of the first responders is still unknown.
According to reports, they were a mostly young and relatively untrained group, which arrived at the scene responding to a fire at around 10:50 p.m. The first of the two enormous explosions that rocked the area—shattering windows in apartment buildings a mile away—was recorded at around 11:30 p.m.
The sequence of events, and the fact that there has been no definitive word about the vast majority of the frontline firefighters who were first to respond, indicates that they may have been caught in the explosions.
According to family members and reports, there were between 30 and 40 firefighters in Team Four, and 25 in Team Five, the first two groups that responded to the disaster. Only five or six of them (from Team Four) have been accounted for. The official death toll for firefighters is a total of 31.
Family members have cried foul about a possible coverup of these deaths, given that Chinese authorities have not made any formal, clear statements about the fate of this group of firefighters. Moreover, a recent, detailed article about their experiences reported by the state-funded online news media outlet The Paper, was recently deleted from the Internet.
A sense of frustration and cynicism about the authorities’ response has been spreading on the Internet in China. A widely read essay by the Shanghai journalist Jia Jia attacks Tianjin Daily, the city’s state-run newspaper, for running an emotional 10 page spread that focused mostly on the rescue efforts, and didn’t delve into questions of malfeasance or the causes of the explosion.
“All the pages were about ‘being emotionally touched,’ nothing else,” Jia Jia wrote. “Thanking the government for commanding the rescue, thanking the firefighters, thanking doctors and nurses. … Why is it that every time there’s a tragedy, it’s dealt with like a celebration?”
The group of firefighters detailed in The Paper’s report belongs to the Tianjin Port Fire Brigade, specifically, Team Four. In the first press conference held on Aug. 13, officials responded that they “didn’t know” and were “unclear” about the group’s fate. The group is one of the six full-time fire brigades located at the Tianjin Port, an area that occupies 46 square miles and is the biggest seaport in northern China.
Two days later, there was still no clear word. On Aug. 15, angry family members blocked the entrance to the press conference in Tianjin City Hall, yelling, “We just want an answer, live or dead. Just tell us!” They also complained at not having been told the press conference was to be held.
There are either 30 or 40 members in Team Four, according to interviewees who spoke to The Paper, and Phoenix. Only six of them have been found, raising the possibility that between 24 and 34 were killed in the blast. The authorities have not clarified the exact number of members in Team Four.
At around 11 p.m., Ma Chao (a pseudonym) spotted the first fire in two rows of containers, as well as a “crackling” on the rooftop of a dorm about 300 meters (984 feet) away from the epicenter of what would later become the explosion’s ground zero. Ma and his colleague thought an accident had occurred in a fireworks warehouse.
Wu Wei, also a member of Team Four, said he spotted the fire slightly earlier, at 10:50 p.m., and rushed downstairs; having not heard advice from headquarters on how to respond “the first reaction of seeing fire is surely to fight it,” he told The Paper.
Wu was lucky to make it out alive. The alarm sounded and they hustled out, approaching the flames. Wu was dispatched to find water, and broke through an iron gate to hook up the hose to a hydrant. “Something is not right. Everyone withdraw now,” said the captain over the radio. And then the first massive explosion happened, throwing Wei into the nearby garage, trapping him under large rocks. “A steel rod flew right past my neck. It almost pierced me,” he said.
There were two other members of Team Four who are known to have survived: Lin Ming, who was off that night, and was awoken by the massive blast; and a 19-year-old crew member whom he caught up with as he rushed to the scene to help with the wounded. They later found there were only six remaining members from Team Four.
On Aug. 14, Xinhua, the official news agency, reported that six firefighters had “sacrificed themselves” in fighting the blaze, but no Team Four member was present on the list.
Ma Chao, in his interview with The Paper, said they did not know that there were explosive chemicals stored there.
According to Southern Weekend, a newspaper in Guangdong known for its edgy reporting, water should not have been used to fight the fire.
The newspaper stated that the chemical engineer said it was common sense that water not be used to fight a chemical fire. “Not to mention that cyanide, once it encounters water, will explode like a chemical weapon,” the report continued, paraphrasing the engineer. “It’s a substance like calcium carbide. Putting water on it is equivalent to detonating an explosion.”