The young firefighters, their thin frames puffed up by insulated coveralls, some of them barely old enough to shave, rushed to the scene of a modest warehouse fire in the port city of Tianjin on Wednesday night with little idea of the danger that awaited them, reports The New York Times.
Initial reports described a car on fire. But the 60 or so men who first arrived at the scene — contract firefighters employed by the Tianjin Port Group, many of them as young as 17 — confronted a fire that had spread to metal shipping containers stored nearby. The firefighters aimed their hoses at the flames and turned on the water.
That turned out to be a deadly mistake.
Roughly 15 minutes later, an explosion — fueled by a collection of volatile chemicals that emit a combustible gas when wet — ripped through the warehouse. Yang Kekai, 27, was thrown to the ground as flaming debris rained down. Another blast, seconds later, sent him hurtling more than three yards. “When I was flying through the air, my heart skipped a beat and I thought I was finished,” Mr. Yang said later from a hospital bed.
At least 39 firefighters were among the 114 people killed by the cataclysmic explosions that injured more than 700 people and traumatized Tianjin, China’s third largest city and the gateway to the country’s industrial northeast. At least 70 people remain unaccounted for, most of them private firefighters employed by the company that runs Tianjin’s sprawling port.
The disaster has raised questions about whether the warehouse, Rui Hai International Logistics, was illegally storing some of the world’s most dangerous industrial chemicals too close to the homes of thousands of unsuspecting residents.
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