• Staff Report, Kyodo, Reuters


Japanese companies with operations in Tianjin were scrambling Thursday to gauge the extent of damage to their businesses following massive blasts at an industrial area in the Chinese port city. At least 44 people were reported dead and 520 injured, with potentially huge property damage.

The Japanese Embassy in Beijing said it had no confirmation of Japanese nationals among the casualties, as of Thursday morning.

Toyota Motor Corp. said its group firm Tianjin FAW Toyota Motor Co. runs a unit assembling cars for the Chinese market about 3 km from the facility where chemicals were thought to have ignited and exploded.

Public relations officials with Toyota said the firm was trying to figure out how the factory was affected. They said Tianjin FAW Toyota Motor was taking a summer vacation this week and thus the plant was not in operation when the explosions occurred toward midnight Wednesday.

Tianjin is also home to plants run by Japanese auto parts makers supplying Toyota, and there were fears of disruption to the supply chain for other manufacturers and traders using Beijing’s main maritime gateway.

Among the physical damage, local sources said the blast shattered glass doors at a large-scale shopping mall of top Japanese supermarket operator Aeon Co. about 2 km from the site. The mall was closed on Thursday, and the company was yet to determine when it would reopen.

An Aeon spokesman in Chiba told The Japan Times the company was still assessing the situation.

“Our Beijing headquarters and Chiba headquarters are working together, but we haven’t been able to get concrete information,” the spokesman said.

Given that the mall is located close to where the blasts occurred, there is “no doubt” it has been damaged, he added.

The blast also shattered glass panes at a nearby showroom of Mazda Motor Corp., prompting the dealer to suspend operations on Thursday. Five or six cars imported from Japan and stored in a local storage facility were found to have cracked windows, a company source said.

Two huge explosions tore through an industrial area where toxic chemicals and gas were stored in the northeastern port city. At least a dozen fire fighters were among the dead, officials and state media said Thursday.

More than 60 of those injured were in serious condition, the Tianjin government said on its Weibo microblog. The People’s Daily newspaper said four fires were still burning later on Thursday.

Anxious residents rushed to hospitals to seek news about injured loved ones. Dozens of police guarded the entrance of the TEDA hospital, a witness said.

Pictures on Chinese media websites showed residents and workers, some bleeding, fleeing their homes. The state-run Xinhua News Agency said people had been hurt by broken glass and other flying debris.

Wednesday night’s blasts, so large they were seen by satellites in space, sent shock waves through apartment blocks miles away in the port city of 15 million people. Video posted online showed fireballs shooting into the sky and the U.S. Geological Survey registered the blasts as seismic events.

Vast areas of the port — the world’s 10th largest — were devastated. Crumpled shipping containers were thrown around like match sticks. Hundreds of new cars were torched and port buildings were left as burned-out shells, witnesses said.

“I was sleeping when our windows and doors suddenly shook as we heard explosions outside. I first thought it was an earthquake,” said Guan Xiang, who lives 7 km away.

Guan, 24, said he saw flames and a mushroom cloud in the sky as he and other residents scrambled to get out of the building.

China Central Television had earlier put the death toll at 17. Tianjin authorities later said 12 firefighters were among the 44 killed.

Industrial accidents are not uncommon in China following three decades of breakneck economic growth. A blast at an auto parts factory in eastern China killed 75 people a year ago when a room filled with metal dust exploded.

The state-run Beijing News earlier cited Tianjin fire authorities as saying they had lost contact with 36 firefighters, and that another 33 were among the hundreds of people being treated in nearby hospitals.

Xinhua said 1,000 firefighters and more than 140 fire engines were struggling to contain a blaze in a warehouse that contained “dangerous goods.”

“The volatility of the goods means the fire is especially unpredictable and dangerous to approach,” Xinhua said.

Several fire trucks had been destroyed and nearby firefighters wept as they worked to extinguish flames, the Beijing News reported.

President Xi Jinping demanded that authorities “make full effort to rescue and treat the injured and ensure the safety of people and their property.”

Xi said in a statement carried by official media that those responsible should be “severely handled.”

A witness said gray clouds of smoke billowed above the blast site and several trucks carrying paramilitary police — wearing masks to protect them from potentially toxic smoke — headed to the area.

The blasts shattered windows in buildings and cars and knocked down walls in a 2-km radius around the site. Photographs on news websites showed burned-out cars inside a multi-story car park at a logistics base at Tianjin Port.

Video posted on YouTube from what appeared to be an apartment building some distance from the scene showed an initial blast followed by a second, much bigger, explosion. Shock waves hit the building seconds later.

“Our building is shaking. Is this an atomic bomb?” said a frenzied voice inside.

Despite the devastation, the port was operating normally, a port official said. Tianjin port is the gateway to northern China’s industrial belt.

Xinhua said the explosions, the first equivalent to 3 tons of TNT and the second to 21 tons of TNT, ripped through a warehouse.

It identified the owner of the warehouse as Tianjin Dongjiang Port Ruihai International Logistics. The company’s website said it was a government-approved firm specializing in handling “dangerous goods.” Company officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

According to an assessment by government environmental inspectors published in 2014, the facility was designed to store several dangerous and toxic chemicals including butanone, an explosive industrial solvent, sodium cyanide and compressed natural gas.

CCTV said at least one person at a “relevant company” had been detained.

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