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China: Were ‘hero’ firefighters ill prepared for enormity of Tianjin blasts?

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Story highlights

Firefighters in the Tianjin blast have been hailed as heroes

Questions have been raised about how they were trained and equipped

China has fewer firefighters than United States

Beijing CNN —  

Yuan Yuan’s grief for her only brother is tinged with anger.

Seventeen-year-old Yuan Hai was the youngest of 50 firefighters killed in the deadly blasts that hit China’s port city of Tianjin on August 12. Of the 57 people still missing, 52 are firefighters.

Her posts on Chinese social media after she learned of his death have wrenched millions of hearts.

“Why were you so heartless to leave our dad and mom for me to take care of?” she wrote on a widely shared post on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter.

“We didn’t expect you to accomplish great things; we only wanted you safe; we wanted you back, we wanted you back. It’s too cruel for dad and mom to see you die before them.”

Tuesday is the seventh day since the massive explosions, according to tradition a key time to mourn the dead, and thousands in the city took part in memorials.

The nation has revered the firefighters dispatched to the apocalyptic scene as heroes.

But critics say that the focus on eulogizing them obscures the fact that China’s firefighters are poorly equipped and inadequately trained, especially young contractors, who don’t enjoy the same military status or pension benefits as staff firefighters.

Tianjin blasts: Another of China’s ‘profound’ lessons?

Newly wed firefighter Yin Yanrong was among the dead
Tianjin Police Department
Newly wed firefighter Yin Yanrong was among the dead

Flawed response?

State media, including national broadcaster CCTV, interviewed some of the first firefighters on the scene, who said that they sprayed water on the fire without knowing what was stored in the warehouses.

That revelation has prompted many to question whether the firefighters’ initial response – trying to put out a chemical fire with water – caused the subsequent explosion, as some chemicals stored in the facility are known to react violently with water.

International procedure for incidents involving hazardous materials usually requires firefighters to identify the hazards and their locations before responding to the fire.

Firefighter Wang Yuan, who was one of first firefighters at the scene, told Beijing News, a state-owned newspaper, that he and his fellow firefighters had barely been introduced to foam and sand – regular extinguishers for chemical fires – during practice. He told local reporters they had mostly practiced using water pressurized guns.

After seven years of working as a firefighter, Wang acknowledged he did not fully understand how to put out fires caused by different chemicals, according to Beijing News.

The Tianjin Fire Department declined to respond to CNN’s questions, saying it was not authorized to speak to media. The State Fire Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

MORE: Executives detained as blast investigated

’I found it hard to breathe’

Speaking from his hospital bed, Xiao Xu, 18, one of the first batch of firefighters sent to the blast site, painted a scene of confusion. He said one of the shockwaves from the massive explosions sent him into the air and knocked off his helmet.

“We hid ourselves behind containers, which were deformed by the blast wave, we walked through the containers but couldn’t find a way out. Smoke and fire were everywhere and I found it hard to breathe,” he said in a video carried by Reuters news agency.