At least 17 dead after explosions hit China port city

A man takes a photo near a burned drum residents said flew from a nearby explosion in the background in northeastern China's Tianjin municipality. (Ng Han Guan ~ Associated Press)

TIANJIN, China -- Huge explosions at a warehouse for dangerous materials in the Chinese port of Tianjin killed at least 17 people, injured hundreds and sent fireballs into the night sky, officials and witnesses said today.

China's state broadcaster, CCTV, said at least 17 people were killed, and 32 were in critical condition in hospitals. Hundreds of others were taken to hospitals. The explosions late Wednesday knocked doors off buildings in the area and shattered windows several miles away.

"I thought it was an earthquake, so I rushed downstairs without my shoes on," said Tianjin resident Zhang Siyu, whose home is several miles from the blast site. "Only once I was outside did I realize it was an explosion. There was the huge fireball in the sky with thick clouds. Everybody could see it."

Zhang said she could see wounded people weeping. She said she did not see anyone who died, but "I could feel death."

Police in Tianjin said an initial blast took place at shipping containers in a warehouse for hazardous materials owned by Ruihai Logistics, a company that says it's approved to handle hazardous materials. State media said senior management of the company had been detained by authorities.

It's part of an industrial park, with some nearby apartment buildings.

The official Xinhua News agency said an initial explosion triggered other blasts at nearby businesses. The National Earthquake Bureau reported two major blasts before midnight, the first equivalent to 3 tons of TNT and the second with the equivalent of 21 tons.

Photos taken by bystanders and posted on microblogs show a gigantic fireball high in the sky, with a mushroom cloud. Other photos on state media outlets showed a sea of fire that painted the night sky bright orange, with tall plumes of smoke.

In one neighborhood six to 12 miles from the blast site, some residents slept on the street, wearing gas masks, although there was no perceptible problem with the air apart from clouds of smoke in the distance.

About 1.2 miles from the explosion is the luxury Fifth Avenue apartment complex on a road strewn with broken glass and pieces of charred metal thrown from explosion. Like surrounding buildings, the Mediterranean style complex had all its windows blown out, and some of its surfaces were scorched.

"It's lucky no one had moved in," said a worker on the site, Liu Junwei, 29. "But for us, it's a total loss. Two years hard work down the drain."

"It had been all quiet, then the sky just lit up brighter than day, and it looked like a fireworks show," said another worker on the site who gave just his surname, Li.

"It was like what we were told a nuclear bomb would be like," said truck driver Zhao Zhencheng, who spent the night in the cab of his truck. "I've never even thought I'd see such a thing. It was terrifying but also beautiful."

At the nearby Taida Hospital as dawn broke, military medical tents were set up. Photos circulating online showed patients in bandages and with cuts.

State broadcaster CCTV said six battalions of firefighters had brought the ensuing fire under control, although it was still burning in the early hours of Thursday.

Ruihai Logistics says on its website it was established in 2011 and is an approved company for handling hazardous materials. It says it handles 1 million tons of cargo annually.

Tianjin, with a population of about 15 million, is about 75 miles east of Beijing on the Bohai Sea and is one of the country's major ports. It is also one of China's more modern cities and is connected to the capital by a high speed rail line.

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