At 11:30 PM Wednesday night, a series of massive fireballs exploded out of a warehouse in the industrial part of Tianjin, China, a port city of 15.2 about 70 miles south of Beijing. The first blast created enough force to register as a 2.3-magnitude earthquake, and was immediately followed by a second blast with a 2.9-magnitude force that created a massive mushroom cloud. Smaller blasts soon followed.
"It was like what we were told a nuclear bomb would be like," the Daily Mail quoted a local named Zhao Zhencheng as saying. "I've never even thought I'd see such a thing."
As of Thursday evening, it was widely reported that at least 50 people were killed (including 12 of the 1,000 firefighters who were on the scene) and over were 700 injured in the blasts, with at least 10 percent of the wounded in critical condition.
Those numbers are likely to increase as search and rescue efforts continue.
Already, this places the Tianjin explosion among the worst manmade disasters in recent Chinese history. (An explosion in a metal dust-filled room at an auto parts factory near Shanghai last August had a higher initial body count, with 75 dead, but at least it was contained to that factory.) Chinese officials have vowed to monitor and investigate the incident, but the government also seems to be limiting the media's ability to report on the explosions. What information has trickled out, generally through Chinese state media outlets, has been piecemeal, leaving citizens and observers to wonder exactly what toxins were released in the fire, how dangerous they could be, and whether this massive incident will lead to any reforms in China's much-criticized industrial safety and regulatory policies.
"China has detailed regulations on many areas, including the environment and very likely the handling of [hazardous materials]," explains Professor Andrew Wedeman, an expert on Chinese economic growth and corruption at Georgia State University's China Research Center. "The problem is that enforcement is lax or nonexistent… Industrial accidents, including explosions and fires, are not uncommon despite workplace safety regulations… In some areas the rules may need rewriting and improvement. But what is need[ed] much more is systematic following and enforcement of the rules."
The warehouse belonged to Ruihai International Logistics Co., which as of last year employed 70 workers and 20 contractors, netted about $4.69 million in revenues, and handled 70 percent of all hazmat in Tianjin's port, with the capacity to hold and move up to a million metric tons a year.
According to the BBC, "The warehouse was designed to store chemicals including sodium cyanide, butanone and toluene diisocyanate, as well as compressed natural gas and other flammable substances."
The Communist Party–run People's Daily newspaper reports that at least one Ruihai official has been detained for questioning. This, combined with revelations that a 2013 inspection by the Tianjin Maritime Safety Administration found five out of 4,325 containers in storage at the time were in violation of safety regulations may lead some to speculate that corruption or mismanagement were to blame for the accident. Yet no known reports on company safety drills and investigations clearly indicate mistakes to date.
Steven Charles Hunt, president of the dangerous goods consultancy ShipMate, which runs the HazMat training program HazmatU®, suggests that the variety of chemicals reportedly potentially stored in Ruihai's warehouse would have left plenty of room for disastrous errors if regulations were treated as informally at the port as Professor Wedeman suggests they might have been.
As Hunt explained to VICE in an email, "Flammable solids and corrosives should not be stored together, or in close proximity. When in freight containers, sodium cyanide should be stored at least two container spaces away form incompatible materials such as formic acid. If flammable solids (powdered metals, for example) react with other incompatible substances like oxidizers or strong acids, explosive chemical combinations can be formed."
According to a Chinese official spoken to by the Wall Street Journal, "readings taken near the blast site for some chemical pollutants were above regulatory thresholds but were falling."
Without specific details (like the heat of the fire, which items may have combusted first, and all the materials involved) experts like Hunt can't say anything for sure. But he does believe that some of the chemicals that could have been in the warehouse could give locals good reason to be worried.
"Sodium cyanide [for instance] is fatal if swallowed, in contact with skin, or if inhaled," writes Hunt. "It is also corrosive to metals and very toxic to aquatic life and may have long lasting environmental effects. It is a water-soluble compound and has a characteristic smell of bitter almonds… [and] large amounts of hydrogen cyanide [an extremely toxic gas that can travel far by wind] may be produced when [it] is spilled into water."
And that's just the danger of the release of one isolated chemical agent into the skies, rains, and waters of Tianjin. If explosives detonated in the warehouse and damaged multiple containers, Hunt warns that it could have created a "toxic soup" of hazardous interactions and products.
"The level of contamination in the surrounding waterways has yet to be determined," admits Hunt, "so we won't know the full effects to the aquatic environment for a while. We can only hope that the prevailing winds will carry the toxic fumes and gases away from the densely populated areas.
"If not, there may be more casualties to come," he adds.
Professor Wedeman, for his part, thinks that the state has good reason to transparently investigate the Tianjin explosion, initiate reforms, and punish anyone found culpable for the incident. With a nod toward prominent state anti-corruption drives, Wederman notes that the government is already attempting to clamp down on corner-cutting. And a massive environmental catastrophe like this, which will have widespread effects, will only accelerate that push.
"I would hazard that in the coming months we will see a number of people charged with negligence, some of whom may even face criminal punishment," Wedeman told VICE. "Problems like air and water pollution, contaminated food, counterfeit drugs, and (of course) deadly accidents like that in Tianjin affect not only workers, farmers, and other civilians. They also threaten the health and safety of officials, party members, and their families and loved ones. It doesn't matter if you are powerful or powerless when the air is choking and poisonous."
Of course, until we know what actually was in the warehouse, we can't be sure whether the health and environmental situation in Tianjin is as dire as Hunt fears it may be. And until we learn whether this event was a random occurrence or a result of incompetence or corruption, we can't say whether Tianjin will become a calling card for the regulatory reform and anti-corruption movements in China. So far, we don't even know how much of a setback the damage of the explosions will be to the port. But given the scale of the disaster, it's hard to imagine that it was an accident for which no one is to blame, and even harder to believe the idea that the powers that be will let the incident pass without some kind of tangible response.
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.