A massive explosion at a pesticide plant in eastern China killed 64 people and injured more than 600, with media declaring it as one of the country’s worst industrial accidents in recent years that has sparked public outrage.
A 60-year-old resident of Jiangsu surnamed Xiang told AFP that she had been concerned about safety and pollution issues at the site for a long time and “knew we’d be blown up one day”.
“At the time of the explosion, I was almost deafened and I was terribly frightened,” said another woman by the surname of Zhi, a resident of the Chenjiagang community.
The blast happened around 14:50 local time (06:50 GMT) on Thursday (21 Mar) at the Chenjiagang Industrial Park in the city of Yancheng, Jiangsu province, north of Shanghai. Images of the site depicted an exploding fireball, billowing clouds everywhere, injured people, and damaged buildings.
Multiple fires broke out from the explosion and spread to three chemical tanks and five other areas. More than 900 firefighters across the province were deployed to put out the flames which raged all through the night. They only managed to bring it under control after 12 hours at 3 am on Friday.
The blast was so colossal that it caused a small earthquake of a magnitude of 2.2 which resulted in the collapse of neighbouring factories and homes as far as about 6 km (4 miles) away, especially Duigougang town, which sits across the chemical park separated by the Guanhe river.
Staff at the Henglida Chemical Factory, 3 km (1.8 miles) from the explosion, tried to flee when the roof collapsed and windows and doors were blown out. According to local authorities, hundreds of rescuers were dispatched to evacuate more than 3,000 people from the blast side including workers who had been trapped inside the wreckage of toppled factory buildings.
640 survivors have been taken to 16 hospitals so far to be treated for injuries by 3,500 medical personnel while 94 of them are in critical condition, including general manager of the plant, Zhang Qinyue. Children at a kindergarten nearby were also injured from the blast. Schools were closed while about 4,000 workers and residents were forced to evacuate as a safety precaution against leaks and additional explosions, as stated by the city government in its microblog.
Meanwhile, authorities have taken an unspecified number of people into custody as part of the investigation of the cause of the blast. Tianjiayi Chemical, a firm established since 2007, produced more than 30 organic chemical compounds, of which some are highly combustible, such as anisole.
The company was notorious for its six work safety violations over waste management and air pollution in the past, the China Daily reported. In February last year, China’s State Administration for Work Safety cited 13 types of safety hazards at the company, including extensive leaks, a lack of safety training, “poor site management” and a shortage of operating procedures and technical specifications.
The cause of the blast was not confirmed yet, but according to a report from Caixin, a worker claimed a tanker truck filled with natural gas caught fire close to a benzene storage area.
This blast is just one of the common industrial accidents ranging from mining disasters to factory fires that had been occurring in China since the Xiangshui incident in 2007.
Despite the government’s pledges to prioritize safety, regulations are often poorly enforced at factories, power plants and mines which have affected economic growth for three decades. Greenpeace reports an average of 1 chemical accident per day in China.
Just last November, a flammable gas leak at a chemical manufacturing plant in the northeastern city of Zhangjiakou unleased a series of blasts that killed and injured more than 40 people. Also in July last year, an industrial accident in Sichuan province took 19 lives.
Two years ago in December, Jiangsu was shattered by an explosion at a biochemical company in another industrial park.
However, one of the worst accidents happened in 2015 when giant chemical blasts in the northern port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured a thousand others, with most of them being firefighters and police officers.
The explosions at Tianjin, which is located close to the capital of Beijing, were huge enough to be perceived by satellites and earthquake sensors. The tragic incident was blamed on illegal construction and unsafe storage of volatile materials.
President Xi Jinping, who is on a state visit to Italy, ordered “all-out efforts” to rescue and care for the victims as well as to “earnestly maintain social stability”, as reported by the official Xinhua News Agency.
He added that authorities need to learn the lessons from these series of major accidents and find out the cause of the blast swiftly in order to prevent future happenings.
State media said that the State Council, China’s Cabinet will oversee the investigation as Jiangsu authorities launch inspections on chemical producers and warehouses. A notice published on the news website of Jiangsu’s Communist Party declared that any chemical firms found not in compliance with regulations on dangerous chemicals would be shut down by the government.
This may prove to be easier said than done as the economic slowdown has caused many of the biggest companies in China to skimp on standards in order to meet production targets.
Mr Jun, a prominent Chinese environmentalist, remarked that these “businesses should do more to police themselves” as that is the only way to “regulate the vast chemical industry” and build public trust.