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At Least 50 Dead After Massive Twin Explosions In Northeast China

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Chinese state media says that yesterday's massive explosions happened at a warehouse that stored gas and flammable chemicals. The blasts were so powerful, they were felt for miles. At least 50 people have died, including 17 firefighters. More than 700 were injured. NPR's Frank Langfitt has more from the northern port city of Tianjin.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Thousands of people had to flee their homes, and many of them ended up in places like this. It's a middle school. What they've done is they've taken most of the desks and chairs out, and people are sleeping on the floor of the classroom on quilts and straw mats. There's even Chinese characters left on the blackboard since school got out back in June. Among the refugees is a man named Jiang, who's a construction worker.

JIANG: (Through interpreter) As we were sleeping, there was a noise, and then suddenly, our roof was gone. We immediately ran out. The second we ran out of the door, the second noise came. The entire dormitory collapsed. When we ran, we took nothing with us. No one dared to grab anything.

LANGFITT: Like many affected by the blast, Jiang is a migrant worker and came here to build apartment buildings and lived in a flimsy mobile dormitory that are common in worksite across China. Sitting across from Jiang school hall is a fellow construction worker named Wang. Neither wanted their full names used because the government views industrial disasters like this as politically sensitive. Wang says he'd been in another dorm about 500 yards from the blast.

WANG: (Through interpreter) After the first explosion, the ceiling of our dorm started falling all over the place. When I got to the door, the shockwave made me unable to exhale for six to seven seconds, and I couldn't scream.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Mandarin).

LANGFITT: Government officials held a press conference today but gave no hint of what set off the explosion and ducked most questions. When disasters like this strike, the Communist Party often strictly controls information and crafts a narrative that focuses less on responsibility and more on what officials are doing to help victims. The blasts were enormous. The first one was equivalent to three tons of TNT, according to Chinese media - the second, 21 tons. Photos from the scene resemble the aftermath of a carpet-bombing campaign, with gutted buildings, burned out cars and scorched land.

YANG LIMEI: When we escape from the building, we all think it's earthquake.

LANGFITT: Yang Limei is a 50-year-old chemistry professor. She's also camped out at the school, wearing a colorful house dress she ran out of her apartment in. Yang says her husband was watching TV when the first blast struck.

LIMEI: In the living room, the window - all broken.

LANGFITT: Yang gave her shoes to her 19-year-old son. They raced down 24 flights and ran through the streets where Yang cut her feet on broken glass that rained down from the sky. She said she had no idea the plants nearby stored so many potentially dangerous chemicals.

LIMEI: We don't know. If we know it, we don't want to live here (laughter). We only come here for one month. Because yesterday, we really have a very horrible experience.

LANGFITT: A horrible experience in what is one of the worst industrial accidents in China in recent years and remains, for the moment, mostly a mystery. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Tianjin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.