UPDATED 1:15 P.M. EDT on 2019-03-22
A massive explosion at a chemical plant in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu has left dozens dead and hundreds injured, amid criticism of the government's failure to implement safety and environmental standards.
Official media put the death toll at 62 on Friday, with more than 600 injuries reported, as rescue teams converged on the Tianjiayi Chemical Plant near Jiangsu's Yancheng city.
"It was so sudden; we had no warning at all," one injured survivor told RFA on Friday. "We were at home relaxing, and then the building just collapsed, and we were all trapped inside."
A local resident surnamed Huang told RFA that the blast had caused widespread damage to homes in the vicinity of the plant.
"It frightened us to death, like a bomb going off," Huang said. "Once the bang had gone, the fireball came. Local residents' windows were broken across a radius of several kilometers."
"It destroyed the doors of the Chenjiagang police station and a nearby bus stop," he said.
An employee who answered the phone at the Yancheng municipal government offices on Friday declined to give details.
"Rescue efforts are ongoing, but if you want to know more, you should contact the propaganda department," the employee said.
However, propaganda officials have been telling journalists only to publish pre-approved copy from Xinhua News Agency, according to an RFA reporter at the scene.
Officials also used drone interference technology to disrupt drones launched over the site by journalists, while the families of victims were being moved to different cities and counties in a bid to isolate them and control the flow of information.
Test data issued by the Jiangsu provincial environmental protection bureau on Friday showed excessive nitrogen oxide 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) downwind of the site, with dichloroethane and methylene chloride over permitted limits in nearby drainage water. Toluene levels were within permitted limits, the bureau said.
No plans to evacuate
A local journalist surnamed Wu said there seemed to be no plans to evacuate the general population.
"They definitely won't be evacuating because there are so many people," Wu said. "That could cause chaos."
"One of the biggest problems is the high concentration of chemical factories [around this area.]," he said. "They have pretty much polluted all of the groundwater, surface water, air and soil all around."
He said the results from the environmental protection bureau shouldn't be trusted.
"I saw those so-called results ... but I have nothing to say about such shamelessness," Wu said.
However, social media posts and articles relating to widespread pollution in and around Jiangsu's Xiangshui county were found to have been deleted in an online search on Friday.
An environmental activist surnamed Zhao said that environmental monitoring figures are treated as a state secret by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"It is necessary to have environmental protection bureaus or NGOs to do the environmental monitoring, but I don’t know what kind of information they will release," she said. "Because this sort of thing is very sensitive in China right now."
"When I met with an NGO, they told me that we can monitor some things, but that the information couldn't be published," she said.
Media reports highlighted a previous explosion at a chemical plant in Xiangshui 12 years ago, after which local officials placed journalists under surveillance, house arrest and attempted to frame them for bribery and prostitution in a bid to limit reporting of the incident.
A university lecturer surnamed Zhao from Xiangshui county said the pattern of covering up after a disaster is essentially the same today.
"There is always this same logic around a disaster," Zhao said. "Local governments approach these things according to a fixed pattern."
He said environmental groups had warned that the concentration of chemical factories around Xiangshui county was a disaster waiting to happen several years ago, but that the government had no intention of dealing with the issue.
The explosion in a Tianjiayi chemical storage tank at 2:48 p.m. on Thursday sent a huge fireball into the sky and measured 2.2 degrees on seismological instruments, state media reported. Sixteen neighboring factories in the chemical industrial park also caught fire.
"All open flames on site have how been extinguished and the air pollutant index is within guidelines," state news agency Xinhua reported.
President Xi Jinping, who is currently on a state visit to Italy, called for a full investigation into "hidden dangers" at similar sites, it said.
Authorities in Jiangsu have detained the general manager and major shareholders of the company pending an investigation.
"I got out. The firefighters rescued me," one survivor told state-run media. "I am slightly injured, a bit bruised."
The National Health and Family Planning Commission has sent teams intensive care, burns, trauma surgery, neurosurgery and psychological intervention experts to aid rescue efforts, it said.
"On-site rescue, treatment of those injured and other work are being carried out in an orderly manner," it said.
A resident of Jiangsu's Nantong city surnamed Lu said medical personnel had also been sent from his city to help.
"Everyone is watching this [and wondering] why there was such a big, fatal accident?" Lu said. "It is really scary. If we need to donate blood or donate money, we will all do that."
According to a cached copy of its website, Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical is engaged in the production, study and research of m-phenylenediamine and p-phenylenediamine products used in dyes and pigments including hair-dye. The website was unavailable on Friday.
State media reports said police have detained Tianjiayi's general manager Zhang Qinyue and majority shareholder Ni Chengliang for questioning.
Nantong resident Lu said he expected that someone in government would be held accountable.
"But will that replace so many lives? No," he said. "We need to stop this at the source. It is too late if we only talk about who is to blame after each accident."
Reported by Wen Yuqing, Wong Siu-san and Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.