Huge explosions in an industrial area have sent up massive fireballs that killed at least 17 people and injured hundreds in the Chinese port city of Tianjin.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV said 32 people among the 300-400 taken to hospital were in a critical condition. The Beijing News newspaper said on its website that nine firefighters were among the dead.
The blasts, originating at a warehouse for hazardous material, blew doors off buildings in the area and shattered windows up to several miles away.
“I thought it was an earthquake so I rushed downstairs without my shoes on,” Zhang Siyu, whose home is several miles from the blast site, said. “Only once I was outside did I realise it was an explosion. There was the huge fireball in the sky with thick clouds. Everybody could see it.”
Ms Zhang said she could see wounded people weeping. She did not see anyone who had been killed, but “I could feel death”.
There was no indication of what caused the blasts and no immediate sign of any large release of toxic chemicals into the air. The Beijing News website said there was some unidentified yellow foam flowing at the site.
Speaking in Beijing during a two-day visit to China, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: “I express my deep condolences for the tragic loss of life and the hundreds injured in the Tianjin explosions.
“I was in this vibrant city, meeting local workers at the Airbus factory, just hours before the explosions happened and pay tribute to Tianjin emergency workers who have been fighting fires and treating casualties.
“I have conveyed Britain’s condolences to senior Chinese ministers and our embassy in Beijing is in touch with relevant national and local authorities.
“There are no reports so far of any British injured but consular staff are working urgently to establish whether any have been caught up in this terrible incident.”
Police in Tianjin said an initial blast happened among shipping containers in a warehouse for hazardous materials owned by Ruihai Logistics, a company that says it is properly approved to handle it.
State media said senior management had been detained by authorities and that President Xi Jinping demanded severe punishment for anyone found responsible for the explosions.
There were scenes of devastation as dawn broke over the north-eastern city. Windows were blown out of high-rise flats and office buildings were destroyed and more than 1,000 new Renault cars were left charred at a nearby site, the Beijing News said.
The official Xinhua News agency said the initial explosion triggered other blasts at nearby businesses. The National Earthquake Bureau reported two major blasts before midnight, the first with an equivalent of 3 tons of TNT, and the second with the equivalent of 21 tons.
Photos taken by bystanders and circulating on microblogs show a gigantic fireball high in the sky with a mushroom-cloud. Other photos on state media outlets showed a sea of fire that painted the night sky bright orange, with tall plumes of smoke.
About 1.2 miles from the explosion site was the luxury Fifth Avenue apartment complex on a road strewn with broken glass and pieces of charred metal thrown from explosion. Like surrounding buildings, the Mediterranean style complex had all its windows blown out and some of its surfaces were scorched.
“It’s lucky no one had moved in,” said a worker on the site, Liu Junwei, 29. “But for us it’s a total loss. Two years of hard work down the drain.”
“It had been all quiet then the sky just lit up brighter than day and it looked like a fireworks show,” said another worker.
In one neighbourhood about six to 12 miles from the blast site, some people were sleeping on the street wearing gas masks, although there was no perceptible problem with the air apart from
massive clouds of smoke seen in the distance.
“It was like what we were told a nuclear bomb would be like,” said lorry driver Zhao Zhencheng, who spent the night in his cab. “I’ve never even thought I’d see such a thing. It was terrifying but also beautiful.”
At the nearby Taida Hospital as dawn broke, military medical tents were set up. Photos circulating online showed patients in bandages and with cuts.
CCTV said six battalions of firefighters had brought the ensuing fire under control, although it was still burning in the early hours.
Ruihai Logistics’ website, which was later shut down, says the company was established in 2011 and is approved for handling hazardous materials. It says it handles one million tons of cargo annually.
Tianjin, with a population of about 15 million, is about 75 miles east of Beijing on the Bohai Sea and is one of the country’s major ports. It is one of China’s more modern cities and is connected to the capital by a high-speed railway line.