China defends initial response to chemical fires after port blasts

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TIANJIN, Aug 14:China on Friday defended fire fighters who initially hosed water on a blaze in a warehouse storing volatile chemicals, a response foreign experts said could have contributed to two huge blasts that killed 56 people.
At least 21 fire fighters were among the victims of the explosions at the port in the northeastern city of Tianjin on Wednesday night, the official Xinhua news agency said, calling it possibly the highest death toll among fire crews since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
About 720 people were injured, 25 critically with 33 in serious condition, in a nation all too familiar with industrial disasters.
Columns of smoke from fires still burning on Friday rose from the site amid crumpled shipping containers, thousands of torched cars and burnt-out shells of port buildings.
Rescuers pulled one survivor from the wreckage, later identified as a fire fighter, a city official told reporters.
The warehouse, designed to house dangerous and toxic chemicals, was storing mainly ammonium nitrate, potassium nitrate and calcium carbide at the time, according to police. Xinhua has said several containers in the warehouse caught fire before the explosions.
The State Council, China’s cabinet, said a nationwide inspection of dangerous chemicals and explosives would be launched in response to the disaster, along with a crackdown on illegal activities to strengthen industry safety.
“The disastrous explosions at the … hazardous materials warehouse at Tianjin caused huge loss of life and injuries, economic damages and social impact,” the State Council work safety commission said on its website.
“The lessons are extremely profound.”
Chemical safety experts said calcium carbide reacts with water to create acetylene, a highly explosive gas. An explosion could be caused if fire fighters sprayed the calcium carbide with water, they said.
Lei Jinde, the deputy propaganda department head of China’s fire department, a part of the Ministry of Public Security, told state-backed news website ThePaper.cn that the first group of fire fighters on the scene had used water.
“We knew there was calcium carbide inside but we didn’t know whether it had already exploded,” he said.

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