Families’ fury over China blast missing
August 15. Furious, frustrated and fearful, relatives of the missing in giant explosions in Tianjin besieged officials Saturday demanding answers on their loved ones’ fates – only for security to intervene instead.
Three days after vast explosions lit up the night sky and left scenes of utter devastation across an industrial zone in the northern Chinese city — and scores dead — a father said he had yet to hear from his firefighter son.
“We tried to call him as soon as we saw the explosions on television, but it’s been impossible to reach him,” said the man in his fifties, surnamed Liu, his voice trembling with emotion.
Even so he was certain his 22-year-old son — a new recruit to the Tianjin fire service — must have been among the more than 1,000 firefighters deployed to the scene of the disaster.
“The authorities have not contacted us,” he said in flat tones, wearing a blue worker’s cap typical of the Maoist era.
At least 85 people were killed by the blasts at a hazardous goods storage facility — with 21 of them firefighters.
The man was among a dozen relatives of the missing who were barred from a press conference authorities gave at a hotel on Saturday.
As unperturbed local officials gave their presentation, their cries and shouts penetrated the doors that had been locked by security staff to keep them out.
“Nobody has told us anything, we’re in the dark, there is no news at all,” one middle-aged woman screamed tearfully, as she was dragged away by security personnel.
A young man being pulled into a stairwell shouted: “We are the families of the victims! What right do you have to treat us this way?”
– ‘Wait and wait’ –
When disaster strikes in China authorities regularly seek to muzzle victims’ families and ensure that domestic media focus on positive aspects: rescuers’ heroism or miracle rescue.
Pictures of Zhou Ti, a 19-year-old fireman rescued from the rubble on Friday, have been given heavy coverage in Chinese media, along with his first words when he recovered consciousness, according to authorities: “Have the flames been put out?”
But many social media posters have lamented the heavy price paid by the firefighters, most of them young and with limited experience. Questions have been raised about whether they could have contributed to the blast by hosing reactive substances with water.
One mother at the hotel, who gave her name as Long, was desperately awaiting news of the fate of her son Zhiqiao, a member of a brigade sent to the Tianjin port before the blasts.
“There are 25 people in a brigade,” she said. “A death in my son’s was confirmed on Friday night. They haven’t said anything about any of the others, they just make us just wait and wait.”
Several police are also missing. But according to a police officer quoted in Chinese media the force’s losses have not yet been included in any tolls so far released.
Yang Jie’s firefighter son was also among the early arrivals at the blast site, and has not answered his phone since.
“I do not know if he is alive,” Yang said of the 24-year-old.
But he still clung to a sliver of hope.
“The media have been reporting that hospitals have not been able to find the family of one of the injured, who seems to look like my son,” he said. “I will go check.”