Protesters demand compensation for Tianjin blasts amid chemical clean-up; death toll now 114

Residents, whose homes were destroyed in the explosion at a chemical warehouse last week, protest outside the hotel where authorities are holding a press conference in Tianjin on Aug 17, 2015.
Residents, whose homes were destroyed in the explosion at a chemical warehouse last week, protest outside the hotel where authorities are holding a press conference in Tianjin on Aug 17, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

TIANJIN, China (Reuters) - Hundreds of residents displaced by huge explosions last week in China's port city of Tianjin demanded compensation on Monday, as the authorities worked to complete a sweep of the blast site for dangerous chemicals.

The death toll from the two blasts last Wednesday rose to 114, officials said. More than 700 people were injured and 70 are still missing, most of them firefighters, the official Xinhua news agency said.

The explosions sent massive fireballs into the sky and hurled burning debris across the industrial area at the world's 10th-largest port, burning out buildings and shattering windows kilometres away.

Xinhua reported there had been another small explosion on Monday. Dark smoke had cleared after the blast but flames could still be seen.

As teams specialized in handling hazardous chemicals scrambled to clean up the blast site, Tianjin's Deputy Mayor He Shushan confirmed there was about 700 tonnes of the deadly chemical sodium cyanide stored at the warehouse that blew up.

He said that, "after searching, most was concentrated in the core" blast area. Workers would finish a search of a 3km perimeter to identify and clean up dangerous chemicals by the end of the day, he said.

About 200 emotional protesters gathered outside a hotel where officials were briefing journalists. "This is not a demonstration. This is simply our only channel to attract the government's attention. Up until now they have not acknowledged us at all," said Mr Li Jiao, whose home was close to the blast site.

Some 6,300 people have been evacuated from around the blast site in Tianjin, a city of about 15 million and the gateway to China's industrial north-east.

About three dozen police and military personnel blocked the crowd from entering the hotel. The protesters chanted "buy back (homes)" and carried signs that read "fix our homes, that's our demand", but there were no clashes.

Another protester, also surnamed Li, said he had taken out an 800,000 yuan (S$176,000) loan to buy an apartment that was now so badly damaged it was leaning over. He said his family had not moved in before the blast but they would now never return for fear of long-term health risks.

"Most of the people who bought those homes are young, white-collar workers like me. It isn't a small amount of money for us," he said.

China's top prosecutor, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, has opened an investigation into the warehouse explosions.

Mr He said officials were confident those responsible would be held to account but stopped short of discussing compensation.

"We believe that the investigation team can determine the cause of the accident, in short order determine and firmly punish violations of law, and in this way ... give victims and the people a full explanation," Mr He said.

Officials said environmental standards were still "basically guaranteed" and that there were contingency plans to prevent possible rainfall from creating dangerous gases or spreading contamination.

Industrial accidents are not uncommon in China after three decades of fast economic growth.