Global automakers scramble to assess damage from huge blasts at China port

Rows of burnt out cars after a series of explosions at a chemical warehouse hit the city of Tianjin on Aug 12, 2015.
Rows of burnt out cars after a series of explosions at a chemical warehouse hit the city of Tianjin on Aug 12, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING/TOKYO (REUTERS) - Global automakers including Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Corp scrambled on Friday to assess damage to cars and facilities after two massive explosions in the port city of Tianjin, China's largest auto import hub.

The blasts that ripped through a warehouse storing volatile chemicals in the northeastern city late on Wednesday were so strong that they damaged buildings a few kilometres away.

French carmaker Renault SA said nearly 1,500 of its imported cars stored in a warehouse at the port had been burned while Toyota said the blasts broke windows at its car assembly, logistics, and research buildings, which are jointly run with China FAW Group Corporation.

Operations at the Toyota facilities had been closed for a week-long summer holiday and no one was injured, but a spokesman at Japan's biggest carmaker declined to say whether it could resume production as normal from Monday. "In our current view, the damage isn't that severe," a China-based Toyota spokesman said.

Roughly 40 per cent of cars imported to China pass through Tianjin's port, or more than half a million units in 2014, according to the official Xinhua news agency. China imported 372.4 billion yuan (S$84.9 billion) in cars last year, official data shows.

The blasts tore through an industrial area in the broader Tianjin port, killing at least 54 people, including a dozen fire fighters, state media said. About 700 people were injured.

Subaru maker Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd said more than 100 cars that were imported from Japan and were awaiting customs clearance in a warehouse had been damaged by broken windows. The warehouse, which does not belong to Fuji Heavy, is about 2 km from the blast site, it said.

Volkswagen said that some of its imported cars were damaged but did not know exactly how many had been affected. Photographs from the scene showed rows of Beetles and other VW brand cars badly scorched by the explosion. "We have a task force in the area to find out more and which is primarily concerned with the wellbeing of our employees," a VW spokesman said.

Ford Motor Co, Nissan Motor Co Ltd and Toyota also said they were checking their cars parked around the port.

South Korea's Hyundai Motor Corp and Kia Motors Corp had a total of 4,000 cars near the blast site but did not have specific details on the extent of damage, the companies said.

BMW AG said it has two vehicle distribution centres near the port but the damage was unknown given the area had been cordoned off by authorities.

Mazda Motor Corp said over 50 cars imported from Japan were also damaged, with peeling paint and scratches. One nearby showroom was shut on Thursday after its windows shattered, it said.

Other Japanese businesses with a presence in Tianjin including a mall owned by Aeon Co and an Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd department store sustained minor damage. Otsuka Holdings Co said a factory that makes the Pocari Sweat sports drink would be closed on Friday and Saturday as it assesses the site's safety.

Shipping giant Nippon Yusen KK said it could not assess damage at a terminal it operates in Tianjin because the area was off-limits, adding that a few workers sustained minor injuries at an affiliated car distribution company, which was also closed off.