A single spark can start a prairie fire. Mao Zedong quoted that proverb in 1930, 19 years before the Communist Party seized power in China. A single spark set off a series of huge fires and explosions on Aug. 12 in Binhai, a district in Tianjin. The city is the fifth largest in the country, on the coast, 30 minutes by fast train from Beijing. What will the spark ultimately ignite in the capital?
At the moment, no one can say with certainty what started the fire in the warehouse belonging to Rui Hai International Logistics. What is certain, in any case, is the Tianjin Harbor fire department received the order to extinguish it around 10:50 p.m.
The fourth and fifth companies jumped on the fire trucks, and among the firefighters was 20-year-old Lei Chi. In a photo, his face looks soft and friendly. His aunt would later say on the telephone that he was funny and liked to make jokes. Whenever she urged him to find a girlfriend, he replied: But I’m too young for that! Lei, like most of his group, was not a trained firefighter but rather a volunteer. He understood little about firefighting. Normally he was entrusted with cleaning jobs.
The firefighters aimed their water hoses at the warehouse. They had no way of knowing that chemicals stored on the site could react violently with water.
Minutes later, two massive explosions rocked the city. They ripped an enormous crater in the ground. Later, state-run media would write that, together, the detonations developed the force of 53 Tomahawk cruise missiles exploding. The shock wave spread out, bursting windows in high-rise buildings within a radius of three kilometers (1.86 miles), sending fragments of glass and debris flying like shrapnel, injuring people sleeping, eating, arguing or making love in their apartments. A gigantic mushroom cloud spread across the sky.
Almost a week later, authorities would report 114 dead and 70 people missing, among them the 20-year-old Lei Chi.
Whether water from the firefighters’ hoses was the cause of the catastrophe is not certain at the moment. The existence of certain chemicals that were supposedly in the warehouse at least makes it probable. Calcium carbide, for example. If it becomes wet, flammable acetylene develops, which is also known as welding gas. Sodium nitrate, also stored in Binhai, has the potential as well to release an incendiary gas when it comes in contact with water.
The enormous power of the detonation, however, suggests that another material stored there was involved: ammonium nitrate, a substance used in the production of explosives that detonate with devastating force.
Moreover, there was potassium nitrate in Binhai, or saltpeter. In and of itself, it’s not an explosive, but in combination with other chemicals it can also develop explosive power. Who knows what else was kept in the area of the fire. A senior official talks of a total of 3,000 tons of 40 dangerous substances.
The day after the catastrophe, journalist He Xiao-xin traveled on his own to the accident site, knowing full well that what he saw he could never write about in a newspaper. He managed to get into the restricted security area. The photos he took look like they are from a war zone. Charred apartment buildings, kilometers of parked cars burned down to their steel skeletons. "They looked like demons that had just crawled out of hell," he wrote. He was thinking just one word the whole time: Chernobyl. His photos were seen only a short time on the Chinese Internet, then they were deleted.