As the anniversary of the Tianjin explosion approaches, Cai Laiyuan waits for his two sons to return to their home in Yongzhou, Hunan province in south central China.
One child is a newborn he and his wife conceived through artificial insemination. The other is now ashes kept in an urn waiting to be sent back from Tianjin.
Cai Jiayuan, 20, was a Tianjin firefighter. His life came to a sudden end on August 12 last year, when one of China’s largest cities was convulsed by a devastating explosion at a hazardous chemical warehouse that killed an estimated 165 people.
Cai Laiyuan wants to bury his eldest child’s ashes in the family’s home village. As his son is being honoured as a national hero, having died in the line of duty, the urn will have a military escort and the civil affairs authorities in their village need to be consulted. In June he was told that his son’s remains would be returned before the first anniversary of his death.
The time since the disaster has been a strange one. Since the blast, enough time has passed for the Cai family to bring new life into the world, but not to restore the flattened buildings that lie in ruins around the blast site. Some residents are living among the rubble as they struggle to repair their homes.
For this story I walked outwards from the centre of the blast in search of those affected and how their stories have developed in the past year.
August 12, 2015. 10.51pm. A fire starts at a hazardous chemicals warehouse owned by Ruihai Logistics. A team of firefighters from the Tianjin Port Public Security Bureau are first on the scene. About 40 minutes later, in quick succession, there are two deafening explosions leaving two craters; one large, one small. A fireball shoots into the night sky. Everything within 150 metres of the larger explosion was destroyed.
On the morning of July 16 this year, Quan Li, another Tianjin firefighter, stood at the wall outside the site of the blast. Almost a year has passed and he’s come to see how the memorial to his wife and his fallen comrades is progressing.
Gate 7 to the port was repaired long ago and container lorries and vehicle carriers pass back and forth. A year ago everything within three kilometres of here was within the blast zone and cordoned off to anyone without official permission. Any vehicles leaving had to be hosed down to avoid spreading traces of dangerous chemicals.
Now there’s a high wall, with a plaque: “Rebuild in unity.”
Quan is a member of the Tianjin Port 4th Fire Brigade. The brigade’s office is within the blast zone and he has fond memories of training here before the explosion. Quan was among the first on the scene when the fire broke out. As he ran back to call for more assistance, he was knocked to the ground by the first blast, which saved him from the second and stronger explosion. His wife, Zhang Sumei, was on the fifth floor of their building and did not survive.
Quan recalls lying in a hospital bed, being interviewed by reporters on the other side of the curtain. He became friends with many of them. In one interview he made a wish for the coming year: “to erect a memorial to our lost comrades.”
The local government had the same idea. In September 2015, the Binhai district government announced that once soil remediation was complete, a coastal park would be created, with a cluster of sculptures to remember and eulogise the firefighters who lost their lives. It was due to be complete this July, but work is still continuing.
Of those injured from his brigade, Quan was one of the first to recover. And as all the brigade’s engine drivers were lost, he took over that role, meaning he no longer trains or fights fires as he used to. His family think he should find a new partner – he’s only 26 – but he wants to wait for the one year anniversary of the disaster. “If I was a bit younger I’d wait three years, so I could forget. Not that ever I can…,” he said.
Quan had hoped he and his wife would spend their lives working for the fire brigade. Now he spends his time between his home of Zhangjiakou and Tianjin. He’s never visited the nearby capital Beijing: “I wouldn’t even know how to take the subway,” he says.
He likes the idea of leaving Tianjin and opening a bakery. “Once I’m married I’ll cook when I get home; sweet stuff, savoury. All the bustle, a real life, just like before. Seeing each other everyday. She’d be in the kitchen, I’ll go in to help…”
The first thousand metres
Wanke Haigang City is the apartment complex closest to the blast, less than a kilometre away. There are over one 1,000 homes here. At the time residents described events: “The ground shook and all the windows suddenly shattered. There was no time to think, we all just ran for our lives.”
By the end of June this year the two worst affected parts of the development had been repaired well enough that residents could start to move back in.
For Mrs Han the year has been about getting back home. “I just want my life back, as quickly and as cheaply as possible. I can’t wallow in how sad it all is, I’ve just got to get used to it. You’ve got to be a bit optimistic.”
The floor of the apartment is still pockmarked from flying glass, but there’s been no time to replace it. A construction supervisor herself, she knows this damage isn’t a major problem. And she’s spoken to a relative who works for the government in the environmental sector about pollution risks, who reassures her that the air is clean now; and that the water in the craters isn’t going to end up in the taps; and, as long as you don’t live at ground level or eat anything grown there, the soil isn’t a problem. The soil within the development has been replaced.
As long as you don’t live at ground level or eat anything grown there, the soil isn’t a problem
But only 200 homeowners, less than 10% of the total, are equally positive. They all started moving back in June, as this was when the government stopped contributing towards alternative accommodation. “We’re like holdouts,” one owner, says Little V (she gives the name she uses on the internet).
The structure of the high-end apartment complex looks much as it did before. There are five lanes as you enter the gate, with one specifically for electric scooters.
But the official reminders of the disaster are easy to find. There are signs posted by the elevators warning residents not to drink the tap water, alongside notices giving results of monitoring by the Environmental Protection Bureau: “No cyanide detected.”
The government may have failed to meet its deadline for building the memorial for Quan Li’s wife and comrades, but it has rebuilt a kindergarten and elementary school for the families living less than a kilometre from the blast site, finished before the end of June. Parents were keen when enrolment opened in late July despite worries about potential pollution on the site.
The Donghai light rail stop destroyed in the blast is still being repaired. An interchange of three lines is planned here, and a vegetable market is to be built to the south of some nearby apartments.
And Mrs Han believes that it is right for people to return here: “If we can survive this, is must be a special place.”
People are more likely to remember the past at night, when they notice that only a few lights cab be seen in apartment blocks that used to be full. Buildings 1 and 2, nearest the blast, are still dark. When Mrs Han and her husband take evening strolls they find it scary to walk past here.
The Tianbin Apartments and Wanke Jinyu Lanwan buildings are a bit further away but still within the “casualty zone.”
Jin Yu lives in Wanke Jinyu Lanwan. And although it’s the height of summer, she’s worried about the coming winter.
The extra distance from the explosion and an intervening elevated road reduced the damage here, and the residents weren’t given funding for alternative accommodation to allow them to relocate while repairs took place.
Mrs Jin feels like she’s been living on a building site for the past year. On July 16 this year the complex was still swarming with work platforms and ladders with workmen still repairing the building exteriors. Buckets of paint, planks and piping lie scattered about, with signs warning of falling objects.
“We might not be poor here, but we’re still refugees.” Jin Yu sighs as she recalls the past year: the explosion was the first time there’d been any damage to her home. People moved back in last winter but there was no heating. Pipes were cracked, so newly-repaired homes were flooded. And windows haven’t been repaired, so the water gets in during heavy rains.
She repeatedly complains of the unfairness of it all. They didn’t get help with alternative accommodation like those closer to the blast. Those closer to the blast meanwhile complain that even though they were worst affected, they got much the same treatment as others.
The Yongwang Shopping Mall opposite Jin Yu’s apartment has been rebuilt and is open for business, and new turf is being laid on a green area nearby. She has to tell herself that while things might be happening slowly, they are getting better.
The worst damaged buildings, 1,500-metres from the blast, were the Guangda Bank building and a China First Heavy Industries research centre. Both are still being repaired. Only the Standard Chartered bank building has not been worked on – a bus driver says the company has relocated.
Back to the centre
Mid to long-term environmental effects were covered in an inquiry into the disaster: emphasis has been placed on the need for long-term monitoring of environmental health risks. Health checks are viewed as a priority for those working in the disaster area or those who were hospitalised in order to monitor and evaluate the health risks and related damage.
Experts say the health authorities are to carry out health checks, but neither residents nor firefighters have been told anything.
Those living close to the site are most concerned about environmental restoration, and often talk with the Tianjin Environmental Protection Bureau via its microblogging account.
The most harmful substance present at the time of the blast was the 320.6 tonnes of sodium cyanide, a highly toxic chemical compound. According to the report from a government inquiry, as of October 31, 2015, 3% of soil at the site was made up of various forms of sodium cyanide, along with small quantities of other persistent, accumulative and toxic chemicals and secondary pollutants.
Cleaning up the pollution is an arduous task.
Zhang Guobing of the environmental organisation Tianjin Binhai Environmental Advisory Service Centre, might be paying closest attention to the clean-up – he’s made more than 10 visits to the site.
On July 11 this year, in the early evening, he entered the site by a gate that had been left open. Behind a rusting fence he saw the level of stagnant water in the larger crater was much lower. There are many pools of water outside the wall, while white powder and discarded gloves can be seen on the cracked earth.
To the north of the crater soil has been loaded into white bags and piled up high, then covered with green plastic sheets. North again there are two pools of water with signs warning of cyanide contamination. Two tanker lorries sit nearby.
The soil remediation is being undertaken by a local environmental protection firm. Zhang has asked for information from the company, and in early July this year the environmental protection bureau sent him a report on remediation efforts.
Information on the work being done to clean up debris and pollutants is displayed on boards around the site, but neither those signs nor the report Zhang obtained say how long the process will take.
Treatment of harmful waste
The report does mention the Tianjin Zhenxing Cement Factory. An official there said that the plant has been incinerating waste from the blast since it happened, and this accounts for half of the company’s disposal business. At current rates, they’ll be finished by next year. “We’d like to do it as quickly as possible, hopefully by the year’s end.”
To see how polluted water from the site is being treated you need to travel two kilometres, to where an emergency water treatment facility has been set up near a sewer outlet to the sea.
Workers there say they’ve been here almost a year, since the explosion happened. The managers of the site, Tianjin Environmental Protection Technology Development Centre, say that their work will soon be complete, with the outcomes to be made public.
Alongside the water treatment workers, who have also been based at the site for over a year, there is another group of workers, working to reclaim land from the sea. Their work was interrupted by the disaster but has now resumed. Few remember that this port, now China’s largest artificial harbour, was once salt-water reed marshes.
This report has been edited from an article originally published in Southern Weekend on July 28. Southern Weekend intern Wang Qian contributed to this article.