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'Hundreds of tonnes' of sodium cyanide at heart of Tianjin disaster

Sydney Morning Herald - August 16, 2015

Philip Wen, Beijing The official death toll from the fiery explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin has risen to 112, as authorities confirmed there were likely "hundreds of tonnes" of sodium cyanide stored at the hazardous chemical storage facility which ignited the spectacular blasts.

But the toll could still rise sharply after officials also revealed for the first time that nearly 100 people remained unaccounted for.

Of the 95 listed missing as of Sunday morning, Chinese officials said 85 were firefighters, underlining the tragic narrative which continues to emerge at the bustling port city that vast numbers of those killed in the explosions were young firefighters, sent in as first responders with limited information on the nature of the fires they were dealing with.

There have also been questions over whether their attempts to douse the fire with water, instead of other retardants, produced chemical reactions which exacerbated or even triggered the subsequent explosions. On Sunday, authorities confirmed specialists had located the two sites where the highly toxic sodium cyanide was stored.

"It's better not to say what the exact location is, but from appearances it can be estimated that it is in the hundreds of tonnes," Shi Ruze, an official from the People's Liberation Army general staff department, told a news conference.

Residents were ordered to evacuate buildings within a three-kilometre radius of the blast site after a fresh series of smaller explosions on Saturday reignited fires and prompted fears of chemical contamination though Chinese officials say air quality readings have remained within a normal range.

Officials at the news conference on Sunday said that of the 112 confirmed dead, only 24 had been positively identified, with DNA testing underway to identify the other 88 bodies recovered suggesting possible overlap with those reported missing.

The disclosure of the numbers missing only came after furious family members many claiming to be parents of firefighters railed against officials outside a press conference in Tianjin on Saturday, accusing them of keeping them in the dark. Media were locked inside the press conference room as relatives tried to force their way in, brandishing their own lists of their missing loved ones.

"Nobody has told us anything, we're in the dark, there is no news at all," screamed one middle-aged woman, as she was dragged away by security personnel.

Among those being moved were hundreds of displaced residents being housed at a temporary evacuation centre at a nearby primary school. Thousands more have been unable to return home.

"Out of consideration for toxic substances spreading, the masses nearby have been asked to evacuate," the state news agency Xinhua said.

As well as the lack of reliable information, residents have been increasingly angered by potential regulatory lapses and lack enforcement of safety standards.

The closest apartments complexes were built just 600 metres away from the site when zoning laws dictate they should be at least one kilometre away.

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/hundreds-of-tonnes-of-sodium-cyanide-at-heart-of-tianjin-disaster-20150816-gj05ie.html.

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