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After massive Tianjin factory blast, Beijing orders more inspections

China launches abuse of power probe as residents ask why factory was allowed to build close to their apartments

China's government ordered a nationwide check of workplace safety Monday, five days after huge explosions at a warehouse in the port city of Tianjin killed at least 114 people and left 70 others missing.

The directive from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology lamented the frequency of fatal workplace accidents and demanded a thorough inspection of all safety risks.

Meanwhile, prosecutors were ordered to investigate possible dereliction of duty and abuse of power that may have contributed to Wednesday night's blasts. "We must thoroughly investigate [the incident] and hold accountable all those responsible," state media quoted Premier Li Keqiang as saying. "We must give an answer for families of the victims, an answer for all residents of Tianjin, an answer for all Chinese people, and an answer for history."

About 100 people whose residences were damaged by the explosions gathered Monday to demand compensation from the government.

Wednesday's blasts originated at a warehouse for hazardous material, where 700 tons of sodium cyanide — a toxic chemical that can form combustible substances on contact with water — was being stored in amounts that violated safety rules. That has prompted contamination fears and a major cleanup of a 1.8-mile-radius, cordoned-off area in the Chinese port city southeast of Beijing.

Chinese work safety rules require such facilities to be at least 3,300 feet away from residences, public buildings and highways. But online map searches show the Ruihai International Logistics warehouse was within 1,640 feet of both an expressway and a 1-million-square foot apartment complex. Those apartments' walls were singed and windows shattered, and all residents have been evacuated.

"We victims demand: Government, buy back our houses," said a banner carried by the residents outside the Tianjin hotel where officials have held daily news conferences about the disaster. "Kids are asking: How can we grow up healthy?" read another banner.

Tianjin officials have been hard-pressed to answer how the warehouse was allowed to operate in its location. Questions also have been raised about management of the warehouse, and the country's top prosecuting office announced Sunday that it was setting up a team to investigate possible offenses related to the massive blasts, including dereliction of duty and abuse of power. Ruihai's general manager is in a hospital under police watch.

The blasts claimed the lives of at least 114 people, with 70 still missing, including 64 firefighters and six policemen, Tianjin government spokesman Gong Jiansheng told a news conference Monday.

Angry relatives of the missing firefighters flocked to a hotel for a third day Monday to demand information about their loved ones from government officials.

"I've gotten no information from the authorities whatsoever," said Liu Runwen, whose 18-year-old son, Liu Zhiqiang, has been missing since Wednesday night.

He Shushan, a deputy mayor, on Monday confirmed there was 700 tons of toxic sodium cyanide on the site at the time of the blasts, although authorities said there have not been any substantial leaks. Authorities also said they had sealed all waterways leading into the sea from the blast site and built retaining walls to prevent any runoff.

Sodium cyanide can form a flammable gas upon contact with water, and several hundred tons would be a clear violation of rules cited by state media that the warehouse could store no more than 10 tons at a time.

The ministry's directive ordered government authorities at all levels to check whether companies within their jurisdiction that produce and store hazardous materials comply with safety regulations, including if they are a safe distance from residential areas and do not exceed storage limits.

Most of the port city's commodity operations resumed in the port city Monday. Shipping data from Reuters showed that tankers were discharging again, with traders and shippers confirming that operations had restarted over the weekend.

Port officials were not immediately available for comment.

The Tianjin Maritime Safety Administration's traffic control department said in a statement: "At present, ships apart from those carrying hazardous goods or bunker oil are entering and exiting Tianjin Port's north section normally. All other berths are operating normally according to sailing plans."

Still, several foreign companies operating in Tianjin have suspended operations there while authorities scramble to contain the toxic fallout from Wednesday's blasts. 

Japanese automaker Toyota said over half its China production capacity would be offline at least through Wednesday. The company has operations near the blast evacuation zone and said Monday that it had suspended three production lines, which can produce 530,000 vehicles a year.

Thousands of Volkswagen, Toyota, Hyundai and Renault cars, mostly expensive imports, parked on lots near the blast were decimated.

The operations of Panasonic, logistics company Singamas Container Holdings and Deere & Co. have also been disrupted.

The Tianjin blasts are among the deadliest industrial accidents in China in recent years. In June 2013, a fire at a poultry plant in the northeastern province of Jilin killed 121 people. In August 2014, a dust explosion at a metal plant in the eastern province of Jiangsu left 97 people dead.

Wire services

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