TIANJIN – Officials of this port city near Beijing were scrambling on Friday to understand what had caused the calamitous blasts that killed dozens of people this week, even as they faced persistent questions about why they had allowed a company that handled dangerous chemicals to operate so close to residential areas.
The death toll climbed to 55 on Friday, but it was expected to rise further as emergency workers combed the wreckage for the remains of those killed by the two enormous explosions. The blasts engulfed office buildings and port facilities, as well as onlookers who had gathered to watch firefighters battle what began as a modest blaze.
In a rare bit of good news, the state news media on Friday reported that rescue workers had found an injured firefighter at the site, more than a full day after a pair of spectacular fireballs lit up the night sky and percussive blasts shattered windows hundreds of yards away. The flames and flying debris injured more than 700 people, at least 70 of whom remained in critical condition.
In the face of an information vacuum — the result of aggressive government attempts to control the flow of news about the disaster — there was rampant speculation on the Internet about the owners of Rui Hai International Logistics, the company that owns the warehouse where the blast occurred, and whether they might be connected to senior government leaders.
The government’s online corporate registry for Tianjin remained offline nearly two days after the disaster, fueling concerns about a possible cover-up. Officials have said that the blast disabled the website, which lists details about corporate ownership.
There was a small explosion at the blast site just before noon Friday, which sent up a cloud of white smoke.
Several Chinese news outlets appeared to be defying a central government ban on independent reporting, and officials in Tianjin, China’s third-largest city, appeared to have been unprepared for tough questions about the disaster. On Friday, local officials abruptly ended a news conference that was called to discuss it.
The blasts Wednesday night were preceded by a fire at the warehouse, and questions have also been raised about whether the hundreds of firefighters who converged to fight the blaze had been aware of the potential hazards, and about whether they were trained to combat complex and volatile chemical fires.
Officials have acknowledged that at least 700 tons of sodium cyanide, a compound that releases highly toxic gas, was stored at the warehouse. The facility was also licensed to handle calcium carbide, a dangerous compound known to release flammable gases when mixed with water.
Zhou Tian, head of the local Fire Department, said his men would have known not to spray water on stores of calcium carbide. But another fire official told The Paper, an online Chinese publication, that water might have been used to douse the initial fire, which reportedly involved vehicles.
During a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Zhou said that the first fire brigade to reach the site had been trying to determine the contents of the warehouse and that a second brigade had arrived by the time the explosion occurred. Seventeen firefighters are known to have been killed, and many of the scores of people still missing are thought to be firefighters.
Officials have been unable to determine exactly what kinds of chemicals were being stored at the site, saying that the company had provided them with conflicting accounts. Earlier reports in the state news media said a senior company manager had been detained for questioning.
With about 6,000 Tianjin residents forced from their homes and countless others unsure whether it was safe to breathe the air, government officials have struggled to reassure the public that there was little danger. On Friday, they acknowledged that sodium cyanide had been found in sewer pipes under the Binhai district port, but they said workers had shut the drains, ensuring that none of the chemical would seep into the adjacent Bohai Bay.
According to The Beijing News, Rui Hai had at one point submitted documents saying that it did not handle dangerous chemicals, but it claimed in a subsequent filing that it had received the required permission from port officials.
The newspaper, quoting a deputy manager at Rui Hai, said workers were unaware of what was stored at the facility, a way station for chemicals awaiting export or transport to other parts of China. Another employee told China National Radio that workers had received no special training on how to handle dangerous cargo.
Residents have said they had no idea that the port facility in their backyard posed any risk. The developers of Vanke Port City, a high-rise housing complex less than 2,000 feet from the blast site, said they were told the warehouse only handled “common goods” when they started construction in 2010.
“We were never notified that the warehouses were modified to handle dangerous goods,” a spokeswoman for the developer, Vanke, said in an email.
According to Chinese law, facilities that handle hazardous materials must be more than 3,200 feet from homes and public buildings.