Just before midnight on August 12 2015, two blasts ripped through the Binhai New Area port of Tianjin. The blasts were so powerful that they could be seen from space and terrifying footage of the explosions was circulated around the world. 203 people lost their lives that night- and thousands more were left homeless, injured, shocked and afraid.
The residents of Harbour City and Qihang Jia Park- both around 300m from the blast site- had no idea that they were living under the shadow of a ticking time bomb. Despite pressure from media and the public, the investigation report of the Tianjin chemical accident still hasn’t been released, and neither have the full details of the safety assessment of the Ruihai Logistics Warehouse. All across China, there are facilities like the Ruihai warehouse, housing dangerous chemicals in residential areas.
This means that right now there are more ticking time bombs, located next to schools, homes and office buildings, that could go off any time.
Months after the explosion, the people whose homes were destroyed that night are still struggling to piece their lives back together. We spoke to 5 families about how the experience has changed them, and their hopes and concerns for the future.
“I thought it was the end of the world”
Qing Ying was asleep in her bed when the Ruihai chemical warehouse just over 300m from her home exploded, sending a blast through her apartment and shards of glass from her shattered windows into her thigh.
By the time the second explosion occurred she had already grabbed her son and started running from the building. She recalls that she could barely walk from the injuries in her leg, but her son forced her to keep going. When she got outside, her neighbour, Feifei, helped her find a car in the chaos and took her to see a doctor friend of his.
“For me, the most precious thing is the relationships between neighbours. It’s unusual to find such a close-knit community nowadays, but we had that.”
“I was so happy to finally have a place to call home. I never expected that after 2 years it would be completely destroyed.”
Chen Qiang and Fang Li moved into this apartment in 2013, after selling their family home and borrowing money in order to buy it.
Fang li and their daughter were out of town on the night of the explosion but Chen Qiang had remained behind. Glass from his window pierced his left eye when the first explosion happened. By the time his wife arrived at the hospital his eye had already been removed.
“Everyone is slowly forgetting about what happened, but we can’t.”
Chen Qiang and Fang Li are now facing a future full of uncertainty. They have moved closer to the city center to make it more convenient for Fang Li to get to work, as she now shoulders more of the burden for providing for the family.
Even now, Chen Qiang doesn’t feel safe. “It happened once, so it could happen again”
“If anyone had known that the container yard stored hazardous chemicals, we would have acted to change that.”
Song was attending a conference in nearby Tanggu the night of the explosion, but his father was staying at his house. When he heard about the explosion he rushed home to find his father, who fortunately was fine apart from a few cuts and bruises.
He says that losing his home has changed his outlook on life: “I used to worry about small things. If I went away for a trip, I would think, who will look after my plants while I’m away? Now there’s nothing to take care of.”
Song is a perfectionist and did a lot of research before buying the apartment. When the building was under construction, he made sure to investigate the structural safety of the building. “I checked and double checked. I thought this place was safe.”
He knew there was a storage area close to the apartment building but he had no idea it was used to store enormous quantities of dangerous chemicals. “If anyone had known that the container yard stored hazardous chemicals, we would have acted to change that.”
“It was such a peaceful neighbourhood before the explosion.”
3 generations of Baozi’s family moved into Harbour City in April 2013. Baozi described the place that they had made their new home. “It was such a peaceful neighbourhood before the explosion.There were a lot of young families here, at night teenagers would play basketball, elderly people would dance in the square. There was a place for the kids to play.”
Now, the once bustling community is like a ghost town.
Baozi showed us his neighbours’ keys that he kept as a memento of his lost neighbourhood. “The keys are useless now, because the doors and locks are gone, but it’s a symbol of trust.”
Many of his neighbours had scrimped, saved and sacrificed to build a life in this place. “We have friends who used up their parents’ entire savings to move here. Some couldn’t afford any furniture when they first moved in. They just arrived with a mattress and slowly purchased the things they needed one by one.”
“Just when we had started a family, settled down and were ready to have a future, the explosion happened.”
“As I ran from the building I saw a young woman crying on the phone to her husband. ‘We don’t have a home anymore’, she said. I felt really sad at that moment.”
The Chen family had only lived in Harbour City for three months before the explosion. On the night of August 12, they went to bed early, but were woken by the first blast. 14 year old Xiaofeng’s back and legs are covered in scars after he was hit by shattering glass from his bedroom window.
His parents say that since the explosion, they think differently about life and their expectations of their son. “Being alive is the most important thing. All of a sudden you can lose your child or your home. The government can rebuild our houses, but they can’t return the life that was lost.”
Qian Cheng is Assistant Campaign Manager for Greenpeace East Asia’s Toxic Campaign.