Several hundred people whose residences were damaged in the massive Tianjin blasts gathered Monday for a protest to demand compensation from the government as the death toll from the disaster rose to 114 with 70 still missing.
Dozens of soldiers looked on as the protesters gathered, making no attempt to stop them, nor the local journalists covering the event, a rarity as Beijing is usually uneasy about even small protests.
The blasts on Wednesday night originated at a warehouse for hazardous material, where hundreds of tons of sodium cyanide — a toxic chemical that can form combustible substances on contact with water — were 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 this Chinese port city southeast of Beijing.
Residents said they were not aware that dangerous chemicals were being stored in the port.
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 about half that distance from both an expressway and a 1-million-square-foot apartment complex. Those apartments had walls singed and windows shattered, and all the residents have been evacuated.
Chinese state-run media have also lambasted officials for a lack of transparency over the massive explosions.
The editorials and commentary pieces published on Monday echoed frustrations voiced by the public over the slow release of information in the aftermath of the Aug. 12 explosions.
Chinese authorities have moved to limit criticism of the handling of the blasts by suspending or shutting down dozens of websites and hundreds of social media accounts.
Mainstream media outlets — which in China are effectively controlled by the authorities — condemned local officials' lack of transparency, saying it could reflect badly on the government.
However, the People's Daily, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece, “Public opinion should also understand the government's cautiousness and earnestness,” it wrote. “Questioning and denying are not a rational attitude.”
But residents at a protest outside the Tianjin hotel where officials have held daily news conferences about the disaster on Monday carried a banner that said, “We victims demand: Government, buy back our houses” Another read, “Kids are asking: How can we grow up healthy?”
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 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.
On Sunday, authorities confirmed there were “several hundred” tons of the toxic chemical sodium cyanide on the site at the time of the blasts. Sodium cyanide is a toxic chemical that 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 death toll includes at least 21 firefighters — making the disaster the deadliest for Chinese firefighters in more than six decades — and their toll could go much higher because 64 remain missing. About 1,000 firefighters responded to the disaster.
Al Jazeera and wire services