TIANJIN, China - Enormous explosions in a major Chinese port city killed at least 44 people and injured more than 500, officials said on Thursday, leaving a devastated industrial landscape of incinerated cars, toppled shipping containers and burnt-out buildings.
An AFP reporter in Tianjin saw shattered glass up to 3km from the site of the blast, a storage facility for dangerous goods where the detonation unleashed a fireball that lit up the night sky and rained debris on the city.
The explosion was felt several kilometres away, even being picked up by a Japanese weather satellite, and images showed walls of flame enveloping buildings and rank after rank of gutted cars at an import facility.
"When I felt the explosion I thought it was an earthquake," resident Zhang Zhaobo told AFP. "I ran to my father and I saw the sky was already red. All the glass was broken, and I was really afraid." Other residents, some partially clothed, ran for shelter on a street strewn with debris.
"The fireball was huge, maybe as much as 100 metres tall," said 27-year-old Huang Shiting, who lives close to the site.
"I heard the first explosion and everyone went outside, then there was a series of more explosions, windows shattered and a lot of people who were inside were hurt and came running out, bleeding," he told AFP.
Paramedics stretchered the injured into the city's hospitals as doctors bandaged up victims, many of them covered in blood.
The local Binhai district authorities said on a verified social media account that 44 people were killed, including 12 firefighters.
Scores of firefighters were already on the scene before the explosion, responding to a fire, and at one city hospital a doctor wept over a dead firefighter still in uniform, his skin blackened from smoke, as he was wheeled past along with two other bodies.
Binhai officials said 521 people had been hospitalised, 52 of them in critical condition, and the official Xinhua news agency reported at least 21 more were missing.
Mei Xiaoya, 10, and her mother were turned away from the first hospital they went to because there were too many people, she told AFP.
"I'm not afraid, it's just a scratch," she said pointing to the bandage on her arm. "But mum was hurt badly, she couldn't open her eyes."
Plumes of smoke
Plumes of smoke still billowed over buildings hours after the blast, which occurred shortly before midnight local time.
"Of course I was afraid, how can you not be afraid?" said a man as he looked at his apartment block behind a police cordon. "I ran. I grabbed my child and my wife and ran." The blaze was brought "under initial control" on Thursday afternoon, Xinhua cited the public security ministry as saying, after 1,000 firefighters and 143 fire engines had been deployed to the site.
But officials were unable to say what triggered the initial fire or the subsequent explosions.
The force of the first explosion was the equivalent of three tonnes of TNT, the China Earthquake Networks Centre said on its verified Weibo account, with the second equal to 21 tonnes.
Xinhua described the facility as a storage and distribution centre of containers of dangerous goods, including chemicals.
Executives from its owner, Tianjin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai International Logistics, were taken into custody by police, it said.
Wen Wurui, head of Tianjin's environment protection bureau, told a televised briefing that "poisonous and harmful" chemicals had been detected in the air, but not at levels "excessively high above standards".
State broadcaster CCTV said that President Xi Jinping had urged "all-out efforts to rescue victims and extinguish the fire".
China has a dismal industrial safety record as some factory and warehouse owners evade regulations to save money and pay off corrupt officials to look the other way.
In 2013, a pipeline explosion at state-owned oil refiner Sinopec's facility in the eastern port of Qingdao killed 62 people and injured 136.
In July this year, 15 people were killed and more than a dozen injured when an illegal fireworks warehouse exploded in the northern province of Hebei, which neighbours Tianjin.
And at least 71 were killed in an explosion at a car parts factory in Kunshan, near Shanghai, in August last year.
Tianjin, about 140km southeast of Beijing, is one of China's biggest cities, with a population of nearly 15 million people according to 2013 figures.
A manufacturing centre and major port for northern China, it is closely linked to Beijing, with a high-speed train line cutting the travel time between them to only 30 minutes.
Several countries were granted trading "concessions" there, as they were in Shanghai, during the 19th and early 20th centuries - settlements that were administered by a foreign power - starting with Britain and France in 1860.
Tianjin's city centre retains a legacy of historic colonial architecture, along with more recent skyscrapers.