An illegal explosives factory is the likely cause of a massive explosion in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi that left at least 14 people dead and around 150 injured, officials and media reports said on Tuesday.
The blast ripped through a building in Shaanxi's Yulin city at around 2 p.m. local time on Monday afternoon, according to the municipal authorities' social media account.
Video initially shared online showed clouds of smoke and dust choking the streets of Xinlin township in Fugu county, which is administered by Yulin.
Dozens of firefighters were sent to the scene in Shaanxi province, and rescuers were hunting for survivors who may be trapped in the rubble, state news agency Xinhua reported.
Photos of the scene showed buildings with windows blown out, dense grey smoke engulfing the streets and bloodied people, some lying on the ground, according to Agence France-Presse.
An official who answered the phone at the Yulin municipal government propaganda office on Tuesday told RFA that the blast is believed to have been the result of "illegal activities."
"The initial assessment of the cause of the accident is that it was caused by the illegal manufacturing and storage of explosives," the official said.
He said "suspects" had already been identified.
"Investigations are still ongoing, however ... and there is no clear conclusion just yet," he said.
The blast had occurred at a facility owned by one person and leased to another, he added.
Local leaders had rushed to the scene to direct rescue operations and "maintain stability," the official said.
"Our emergency orders have already been released, to do everything we can to save and treat those injured, and to carry out a comprehensive safety risk assessment," the official said.
He said authorities have also launched a city-wide probe into safety standards at other facilities.
"There will be a large-scale crackdown on production safety standards and special action will be taken to address problems with social governance," he said.
‘Buried on the internet’
But official reporting of the blast, which came amid a top-level political meeting of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, was soon expunged from the country's tightly controlled internet.
"By [Tuesday] morning, the Yulin story had effectively been buried on China’s internet," David Bandurski of the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project wrote in post on Medium.com.
"Visiting a range of major news sites in China both this morning and this afternoon — including People.com.cn, Xinhuanet.cn, Sina.com.cn (including news.sina.com.cn) and QQ.com — I found no sign of the Yulin story," Bandurski wrote.
A Shaanxi resident surnamed Lu said the authorities seemed keen to play down the incident for reasons of "maintaining stability."
"All [social media] content has been deleted across the board, and replaced with the official version of events," Lu said.
He said explosives are closely linked to the large concentration of coal-mines in Shaanxi.
"A lot of people in Shaanxi have got rich off the back of coal-mining, and the ... explosives are likely to have been stored for use in mining and coal production," Lu said.
Meanwhile, a resident surnamed Qian said he is concerned that similar accidents may still be waiting to happen.
"I'm definitely worried, because the government doesn't do its job properly; it does things very carelessly," Qian said. "They only thing they are good at is lying to the people."
Chen Liuping, a professor in the engineering department of Guangzhou's prestigious Zhongshan University, said the explosives typically used in mining should be stable when stored unless ignited.
"Maybe it was kids playing with fire and the wind was in the direction [of the explosives]," he said. "That would have set off an explosion."
But he said such explosives should be stored in specialist warehouse facilities to prevent similar accidents from happening in future.
Other powerful explosions
China has been rocked in recent years by a series of large-scale industrial accidents.
On Aug. 12, 2015, two massive explosions ripped through a hazardous chemicals warehouse in the northern port city of Tianjin, killing more than 170 people and destroying residential buildings near the epicenter.
The first of the two explosions measured 2.3 on the Richter scale for seismic activity, while the second that followed 30 seconds later was 28 times as powerful, equivalent to 450 metric tons of TNT, state media reported.
In the immediate aftermath, pollution fears grew as the government confirmed that 40 different toxic chemicals were in the vicinity, including 700 metric tons of sodium cyanide.
Almost a year later, at least 21 people were killed and five others injured, three seriously, after a steam pipe exploded at the Madian Ganshi Power Generation Co. in Hubei's Dangyang city.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.