YANCHENG (Jiangsu) • Rescuers pulled a survivor from the rubble early yesterday in the wake of a massive explosion at a pesticide plant in eastern China that killed at least 64 people as well as flattened buildings and blew out windows several kilometres away.
Officials said more than two dozen people were still missing and hundreds had been injured in last Thursday's blast at the Chenjiagang Industrial Park in the city of Yancheng, in Jiangsu province, on China's east coast.
The cause of the explosion is under investigation, but an editorial in the China Daily newspaper speculated that it was likely to be identified as "a serious accident caused by human negligence".
The company, Tianjiayi Chemical - which produces more than 30 organic chemical compounds, some of them highly flammable - had been cited and fined for work safety violations in the past, the China Daily reported.
At the Xiangshui People's Hospital yesterday morning, the ward corridors were filled with temporary beds for the wounded.
"I was just going to collect my wages when it blew up," said a worker who identified himself as Zuo. His head was covered in bloody gauze. "I don't even have a home to go to now," he said.
The hospital was relying on dozens of unpaid volunteers. "No one is thinking about how people will pay their medical bills at the moment - the priority is rescuing them and worrying about fees later," said one volunteer with the surname Jiang, who was sent to help out by his employers last Friday.
Public anger over safety standards has grown in China over industrial accidents, ranging from mining disasters to factory fires, that have marred three decades of swift economic growth.
In 2015, a total of 165 people were killed in explosions at a chemical warehouse in the northern city of Tianjin, one of the world's busiest ports, which is not far from the capital, Beijing.
Those blasts were big enough to be seen by satellites and register on earthquake sensors.
Despite repeated government pledges to tighten safety, disasters have hit chemical plants in particular, with 23 people killed last November in a series of blasts during the delivery of a flammable gas at a chemical maker.
The huge explosion smashed windows in the village of Wangshang 2km away. Stunned villagers likened it to an earthquake.
A provincial official told Reuters yesterday the accident has shown that the market for dangerous chemicals has grown too quickly and production to meet demand has expanded too crudely.
President Xi Jinping, who is in Italy on a state visit, has ordered all-out efforts to care for the injured and to "earnestly maintain social stability", state television said.
The Jiangsu environmental protection bureau said late last Friday that a team of 126 inspectors found various degrees of contamination in local water samples, with nitrobenzene concentrations exceeding standards at one location.
Some volatile organic chemical measurements far exceeded surface water standards, 15 times over in one case, the Jiangsu bureau said.