How strong were the explosions in Tianjin

Explosion disaster in China : Tianjin on the brink

A huge crater, burned-out cars, destroyed houses: after two huge explosions on Tuesday and further smaller detonations in the following days, the number of deaths rose to 112. 95 people are missing, including 85 fire fighters. More than 700 injured people are being treated in the surrounding hospitals. Sloppiness by the authorities, non-compliance with regulations and the fire brigade's ignorance of what was in the warehouses all played a role in the disaster. The first character of the Chinese name of Tianjin means heaven (Tian), instead the abyss has now opened up. The Chinese have a lot of questions.

What is the current status at the accident site?

The major fire is still not under control after two violent detonations occurred on the premises of the Chinese logistics company Dongjiang Port Rui Hai. Eyewitnesses reported a fire “like a mushroom cloud” and that the pressure waves from the explosion could be felt for more than ten kilometers. More than 1000 firefighters are still on duty. Black clouds of smoke are still rising into the sky over the harbor area. The Beijing Times newspaper reported that the authorities want to evacuate the port area within three kilometers for fear of toxic gases. A government spokesman for the city of Tianjin denied this, according to CNN. However, state media later reported about evacuations. More than 6,300 people in Tianjin have been left homeless, mostly in schools, as a result of the explosion. At times a school had to be evacuated because the wind was blowing the poisonous gases in that direction. The chemical warehouse in Tianjin was only 500 to 600 meters from residential areas. Local residents were asked to wear breathing masks.

Who is putting out the fire?

The majority of the fire brigade units are controlled by the Ministry of Public Security. And the members are part of the People's Liberation Army. More than 124,000 are in the service of the central government. Local governments can also set up their own fire fighters, and then there are private companies, airports, ports, oil fields that have their own fire fighting teams. Most of the firefighters missing in Tianjin were employed by the state port operator Tianjin Port Holdings. He now has to ask himself whether he had trained the firefighters for such situations. It has been known since Friday that the Army's nuclear and chemical incident unit was investigating the case.

So far, the relatives of the missing people have been looking for their family members on their own. Questions are piling up online as to why there are no lists of firefighters who have been on duty. The port workers who are missing will likely take much longer to identify. Most of them work as migrant workers and are therefore not only poorly documented, but also have no relatives nearby who could report them as missing.

What caused the disaster?

For a long time, those responsible kept themselves covered with details about the cause of the huge explosions. After the newspaper "Xinjingbao" (Beijing News) reported that 700 tons of sodium cyanide were stored on the premises, a wave of outrage broke out on social networks on the Internet. Because once the salt comes into contact with water, highly toxic hydrogen cyanide is released. In the meantime, General Shi Luze has confirmed the presence of sodium cyanide, reports the British broadcaster BBC, but without specifying the amount. Inhaling the chemical can cause suffocation. Sodium cyanide (NaCN) is widely used in industry. It is used for electroplating, i.e. metal coatings to protect against rust. The chemical is used to harden steel and it is also used in the fertilizer industry.

This was not the only hazardous material stored at the port of Tianjing. Ammonium nitrate (H4N2O3) is one of the chemicals that can explain the crater. The chemical is made up of ammonia and nitric acid. It is used in the fertilizer and explosives industries. The salt is sold as blue grain and is also used as a fertilizer in allotments. The material has also been misused by terrorists on several occasions. The American right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh used the material for his attack on a government building in Oklahoma in 1995, the Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Breivik also used it in 2011 for his attack on a ministry in Oslo. But Islamist terrorists have also used the substance, for example on Bali in 2002. Three fertilizer factories have been blown up by ammonium nitrate since 1921, at BASF in Ludwigshafen in 1921, at AZF in Toulouse in 2001 and at West Fertilizer in Texas in 2013. There have always been Craters and many dead.

Potassium nitrate (KNO3), better known as saltpeter, was also involved. The substance is used as curing salt, as a fertilizer and as a heat transfer medium for solar thermal systems. But above all as a component of black powder, for example in the fireworks industry. The presence of calcium carbide (CaC2) is likely to be particularly problematic for the fire brigade. Because with water, the chemical forms the gas acetylene (ethyne), which itself disintegrates and causes explosions in the process. The substance is used in the explosives industry, for desulphurisation of iron and in the production of PVC plastics.

How is the information available?

In the meantime, Beijing has not only deleted the report on sodium cyanide, but has also issued instructions to several other sites on the Internet and also to domestic online media not to do their own research, but only to quote the state news agency Xinhua or official reports. Only pictures of the clean-up are allowed to be shown, while videos and pictures of the explosion are to be deleted. Angry family members of missing firefighters tried to storm a press conference on Saturday to make their voices heard. One woman shouted, “None of the people in the number five unit received any information. They are only 18, 19, at most 20 years old. You're not even grown up yet. "

Does the disaster have any health consequences?

Toxic chemicals can be present in both the air and wastewater. Safety and health issues are discussed extensively among the Chinese population. There is enough reason for this: just a year ago, a tire factory north of Shanghai exploded. 75 workers were killed because the air ignited due to the high levels of particulate matter and a ventilation system did not work properly. The Beijing government knows that it must take these discussions seriously. Only at the end of June there were numerous peaceful demonstrations by residents near Shanghai. They successfully defended themselves against the construction of a chemical plant and thus publicly demonstrated their claim to healthy living conditions, without the authorities having tried to stop or censor the protest marches. This is in line with the demand made by President Xi Jinping to “learn from the bloody lessons”.

Does the disaster have political consequences?

Obviously, the ruling party is currently fearful that the situation could get out of hand. Instead of trying to win back the people's trust, Beijing is just taking the old route and cracking down on its reporting. Ultimately, however, this only increases the pressure on the government to act. State and party chief Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang therefore worked closely together: Both insured the greatest effort in the rescue work. Xi also stressed that those responsible would be accountable. The controls are also to be tightened nationwide in the future. The accident "reveals a lack of security awareness among companies and a loose implementation of security regulations," the authority spread via the state media.

What are the economic consequences?

The accident is devastating for the 15 million metropolis of Tianjin as an economic center. 55 percent of economic output alone is achieved through the port transshipment point. Thousands of cars, including Volkswagen and Renaults, were destroyed in the explosion. After the accident, the Wolfsburg-based company relocated its new car transports to Shanghai and Guangzhou in southern China. 40 percent of all imported cars came to China via the port of Tianjin. Other international companies such as Airbus and Motorola are also based at the port in Tianjin.

The industrial suburb of Binhai has grown rapidly since 2009. The port now extends over an area of ​​around 107 square kilometers and the length of the quays is almost 32 kilometers. Just ten years ago, the entire facility was half the size and the volume of goods handled was only a third of the current volume of 13 million containers per year. The port in Tianjin is the tenth largest in the world. According to information from the “People's Daily”, the property on which dangerous goods and chemicals are stored covers an area of ​​more than 20,000 square meters.

Could such a catastrophe take place in Germany?

It's not very likely. Because through a chain of serious accidents, the German and European regulatory authorities have learned how to regulate the handling of hazardous substances. For example, the fire in the Basel chemical plant Sandoz (now Novartis) in the 1990s, when the extinguishing water flowed into the Rhine and triggered an environmental catastrophe there. A serious accident in a Hoechst (now Infraserv) chemical plant in Frankfurt am Main in 1993 when it was raining poison had a major impact on today's regulations. Today there are a large number of dangerous goods regulations that are monitored by the authorities and have prevented further major disasters so far.

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