Even as Premier Li Keqiang praised fallen firefighters and the death rose to at least 114, CNN reported, officials and locals also feared that thunderstorms expected Monday afternoon could make the situation even worse.
Soldiers raced to clean up remaining chemicals before showers could create clouds of toxic gas, Shi Luze, the chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army’s Beijing Military Region, told reporters.
Of particular concern were the 100 tons of deadly sodium cyanide stored at two locations on the site, Shi said. Wednesday’s explosion, which shook the city and created massive fireballs many stories high, left un-exploded chemicals exposed to the elements.
“I’m worried,” migrant worker Tian Binyan told CNN. “I heard it’s going to rain later and that would make the air toxic.”
When wet, sodium cyanide releases hydrogen cyanide, a highly toxic gas that can kill within minutes, according to the Center for Disease Control.
But Shi said the chemicals posed no threat to people outside the two kilometer evacuation zone.
“I can responsibly say that there will be no secondary damage to the people,” he said Sunday, according to Reuters.
Despite Shi’s reassurances, however, the situation remained tense this weekend. Rescue workers wore gas masks and hazard suits as they searched the devastation for the dead or injured. And on Saturday, the government evacuated a school near the blast site after a change of wind raised concerns that survivors could be exposed to toxic chemicals, Reuters reported.
Greenpeace said that while early tests suggested the city’s water had not yet been contaminated with cyanide, Monday’s expected rain could set off reactions and wash dangerous chemicals into the earth, CNN reported.
The environmental group has also urged the Chinese government to expand its evacuation zone to five kilometres.
On Sunday, about 100 locals protested outside a hotel where government officials were holding a press conference.
“I’m very worried that these dangerous chemicals will harm my health,” Zhang Yinbao, who works in the chemical industry and lives half a mile from the blast site, told Reuters. “From a legal perspective it’s unreasonable that dangerous chemicals would be so close.”
Liu Yue, who lives 2.5 miles from the blast site, said she was taking precautions.
“I’ve told my parents not to drink tap water,” she told CNN.
Chinese state media sought to downplay the risk of rain, however.
“Meteorological experts say the rainfall will not pose a direct danger to human health, as it has been several days since the blast,” Xinhua reported. “But, if the rain dissolves the cyanide particles on the ground, underground water and soil will be contaminated. The local weather department has devised an artificial rain reduction plan to reduce possible harms to the environment.”
Fears of toxic clouds over Tianjin only compounded the city’s tragedy. Wednesday’s explosion, the cause of which has yet to be determined, killed at least 114 and sent more than 700 people to the hospital.
Nearly 100 people are still missing, most of them firefighters called in to battle the sprawling, chemical-fueled inferno.
Firefighters also make up a sizable fraction of the dead. On Sunday, Premier Li met with injured firefighters and praised their 21 fallen comrades.
“They are all heroes and deserve the respect of the whole society,” he said, according to Xinhua.
At a meeting of rescue organizers, Li also ordered the “swift release of information concerning the explosions in order to let the public know the real picture in timely manner,” Xinhua reported.
“The accident has incurred heavy casualties and taught us an extremely painful lesson,” Li said.
But the catastrophe is the latest in a series of incidents calling into question Chinese safety regulations and government transparency.
After a 2008 earthquake killed thousands of students in Sichuan province, the government was accused of suppressing information and protests by angry parents. Acclaimed artist Ai Wei Wei made the scandal a subject of his work.
In 2011, critics accused the government of covering up a high-speed rail crash that killed more than three dozen.
More recently, China was again accused of withholding information from the public about the capsizing of a cruise ship on the Yangtze River in early June, which killed almost all of the vessel’s 456 passengers.
[China tries to censor a disaster]
This time around, officials have scrambled to show concern. They immediately sent more than military biochemical specialists to the disaster site. And before Premier Li’s visit, President Xi Jinping also vowed a thorough investigation, promising that the responsible parties should be “severely handled,” Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, rescuers continued to comb the ruins for survivors over the weekend.
On Friday, rescuers found a 19-year-old firefighter clinging to life amid the rubble with burns and a cracked skull, according to CNN.
Since then, however, rescue workers have mostly found only the dead — including another firefighter whose body was discovered over the weekend.
“About a dozen other firefighters flanked and stood over the covered body in a solemn ceremony,” CNN reported, citing CCTV footage. “The comrades took off their helmets and bowed four times in a moment of reverence.”
A handful of firefighters carried the body away while the others saluted, before returning to their grim work among the smoldering wreckage.