Tea Leaf Nation

Censored: A Young Survivor Decries Handling of Tianjin Explosion

The day of China's splashy military parade, she writes, local officials persuaded her parents to sign a sketchy contract.

TIANJIN, CHINA - AUGUST 20:  (CHINA OUT) Rescuers spray hydrogen peroxide at the site of Tianjin warehouse explosion on August 20, 2015 in Tianjin, China. The death toll from last week's massive blasts in Tianjin rose to 114, and 65 people remained missing, officials said.  (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
TIANJIN, CHINA - AUGUST 20: (CHINA OUT) Rescuers spray hydrogen peroxide at the site of Tianjin warehouse explosion on August 20, 2015 in Tianjin, China. The death toll from last week's massive blasts in Tianjin rose to 114, and 65 people remained missing, officials said. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

On Aug. 12, a great fireball shot into the sky in the large and prosperous port city of Tianjin, in northeastern China. A privately-run warehouse complex containing dangerous chemicals in concentrations far exceeding the lawful allowance had exploded in the district of Binhai, a disaster that, according to Chinese state media, claimed over 160 lives and injured hundreds of others. But many Chinese do not trust the state media reports, which have been closely controlled. Meanwhile, authorities have vigorously censored social media, which initially bustled with first-hand accounts of the blast’s immediate aftermath. Questions about why the company operating the warehouse was allowed to flaunt regulations remain unanswered.

On Sept. 7, an anonymous user of social media platform Weibo posted what claims to be a first-hand account of the explosion, from a home merely blocks away. The author has not responded to a Weibo message seeking comment, and Foreign Policy has not been able to verify the account’s particulars. But the narrative caused much discussion in Chinese social media, with over 80,000 shares, before it was deleted. The detailed essay depicts robust and generous grassroots citizen response in the wake of the explosion, while sharply criticizing the local government’s treatment of survivors and their families. In an indication at the sensitivity surrounding the Tianjin disaster, the most popular comments urge the writer, who says she will enroll at a U.S. college, to leave China quickly — and, perhaps, stay away. Below, FP translates, with edits for length and clarity. 

***

It’s been almost a month since the explosion in Tianjin, and after sustaining injuries in the blast, I’m finally out of the hospital. Although I’m weaker than before, and my wounds are still healing, I’m finally able to return to something like a normal life — if this very altered existence can still be called normal.

I’m a Tianjin native, and except for three years in a Beijing high school, I’ve lived my whole life in Tanggu [which has been absorbed into Binhai]. When the incident occurred, I was living in Vanke Harbor City — the closest area to the explosion. I’m from a middle class home. We own one apartment — we sold the other one so I could study abroad. My mother and father both work at a state-owned enterprise as low-level employees. I was supposed to enroll in Swarthmore College [in Pennsylvania] Aug. 20, but I’ve had to defer.

The incident occurred around 11:40 p.m. on Aug. 12. Only my mother joined me at home; my father had been sent to Shenzhen [a large city distant from Tianjin] for a long-term work assignment. She was asleep when it happened, and I was lying in bed chatting on Wechat with friends. My bed faces a large window directly, so I could see the sky clearly. I was typing on my phone when I suddenly saw the sky light up. I put my phone down and looked again. Then, in an instant, the whole sky became orange, followed right afterwards by the loudest, most frightening sound I’d ever heard in my life. My window was blown out into shards of glass flying toward me. I didn’t see it clearly, because I’d turned on my side and used my hands and arms to cover my head. After that, everything was instinct. I grabbed a nearby pillow and held it on top of me, in case there was an aftershock (which never came). Then, one more fierce exploding sound.

It felt a bit hot near my left shoulder, so I touched it with my hand and found blood everywhere. I heard my mother shouting at me to come out. I was already in shock, and my whole body was stiff, and I wasn’t aware of how serious my injuries were. My mother had to come in, walking across the glass-covered floor, and pulled me out of bed into the hallway toward her room. I felt dizzy and cold. I looked down and the clothes on my left side were all red. As I lay across my mother’s bed, she ran to turn off the electrical circuit — she thought we’d been hit by lightning.

Lying there on the bed, I felt blood streaming from my clavicle. It wouldn’t stop. It suddenly dawned on me that if my aorta had been injured, I was done. I wasn’t afraid, I just had a very clear and grim thought: I am going to die.

I called my mother back in; it sounded like a war outside. I told her I was hurt, and it might be my aorta. She was relatively calm, and lifted up my shirt to search for the wound. She found it, and pressed down, asking me if it hurt. Truthfully, it didn’t hurt at all.

After that, I lost it, I really lost it. I was comforting my mother, telling her it wasn’t a big deal and to just keep pressing down on my wound; other times I cried and said I was too young to die, that I hadn’t even made it to college. After a few minutes, my mom promptly decided to call for help. First, she wrapped my wound — we didn’t have a first-aid kit, so she used a nearby pair of pants, and it took about ten minutes for her to get the angle right — then she picked up her cell phone.

Outside, the noises had gotten even scarier than the explosion. There were sirens everywhere, but they couldn’t cover up the shrieks and howls outside. It was like the sound of hell.

When my mom ran back into the room, I noticed that her face and body were covered with blood. It sounds pathetic, but at the time, I was just thinking about having someone save me. Family members called then to see if we were okay, but they were too far away to come get us, and the call only lasted a few quick sentences. I tried calling 120 [an emergency number], and finally got through after about a dozen tries. But they said there were no ambulances left.

We were growing desperate. Our cell phone was almost out of power. My mom could have driven me to the hospital, but we were on the 14th floor; the elevator wasn’t working; my mom wasn’t strong enough to carry me down the stairs; and it wasn’t clear if the car was in shape to drive. All we could do was use the phone.  Finally, my mom reached her sister; she and her husband headed out to find us.

They lived about a 10-minute drive away, but after the incident, traffic was crazy, and it took them about half an hour to arrive. It felt to my mother and me like the longest wait of our lives. She and I spent time talking about our family — do you and dad love me, that sort of thing — and found a bottle of rubbing alcohol to put on my wound, found a power charger for the phone, and gathered some essentials.

After half an hour, we couldn’t wait any longer. She found me a pair of shoes and helped me head downstairs. My wound was a bit better but blood was still leaving my body, and I felt dizzy and weak from the blood loss.

My mom wanted to bring me all the way down to the first floor, but she wasn’t strong enough. She had a hernia, and there’s no way she could have carried me all that way on her back. So  I let her put me down on the stairs while she rested. I was still losing blood and on the verge of losing consciousness when I heard my mom calling out to my aunt and uncle (I hadn’t heard them approaching). A building guard was with them, and he and my uncle carried me down about six flights. It must have been exhausting to carry me, who weighs about 110 pounds, all that way. I remember babbling an apology until I ran out of energy.

They brought me into the ER on a stretcher. There were bloodied people everywhere. My family eventually found an ER doctor, who finally put me on a temporary operating table. He quickly announced I had trauma to my chest cavity, but they could only perform basic sutures, and didn’t even have any anesthetic left. With much effort, the doctor located a surgical kit. He said he could give me stitches, but with no anesthetic — I’d just have to bear it. Although I was almost numb from the blood loss, it hurt. A lot. I remember squeezing my mother’s hand every time the needle entered.

Then we were cleared out of the hospital and got ready to go to another one downtown. I was too weak to walk, but luckily some volunteers at the hospital doors put me on a stretcher and carried me. They asked very nicely if we had a car, or needed help getting to the hospital. Now, when I think of how many people volunteered to help, in such a friendly and orderly way so soon after the incident, I’m really moved — I’m sure many people were saved because of them.

The doctors said the hospital was about an hour away. I refused to sleep on the trip, even thought there wasn’t danger by then. Cars flashing their lights were racing around the road, and I think they must have been bringing the injured. When we arrived, the doctor there made the same diagnosis, and drained my stomach. Afterwards, around 5 a.m., they put me in intensive care.

I must have passed out afterwards, and awoke the next morning. I learned then that my mom had also been seriously injured. Her left axillary had a gash nearly four inches long and a series of smaller cuts, and a tendon in her left middle finger was ruptured. All together she needed over 20 stitches. She had been injured by glass shards from the second explosion after she had come out to call after me.

It’s been a long period of recovery since then. The first week, they drained over three pints of blood and liquid from me and gave me about two bags’ worth of blood. After a week, some blood was condensing in my chest cavity. They had to operate on me again. It was minimally invasive, but I needed general anesthetic, and the recovery afterwards was particularly painful.  After the anesthetic wore off, I howled until the next morning. It took another few days before I could walk around and consume semi-liquid foods.

It’s all part of being injured and recovering. But seeing the anxiety and guilt my parents have been through during my recovery, I’ll never feel the same way again. My mom still can’t move her fingers, and her other wounds have restricted her movements, and she hurts a lot on rainy days. Because of my chest injuries and surgery, as of now, I still can’t stand straight for long periods, it’s hard for me to move my shoulders, and breathing can be painful. I’m more afraid of dying. The sound of glass [crashing], lightning, or other big sounds make me think of the explosion. I don’t feel safe anymore.

However, during this process, the powers that be have left me very cold. I’m very grateful that my mother wasn’t forced to go back to work after the explosion, grateful for the medical care. But after a week of stalling, the compensation offered has been about $313 per month, for a total of three months. Before the explosion, our two-bedroom apartment could have rented for between $470 and $550 per month, and that’s not in the most bustling area of the development zone.

One week after the disaster, without the slightest notice to landowners, and without police supervision, [authorities], in the name of clean-up, search, and rescue, pried open the doors to seemingly all the homes in our area and sent in laborers to “sweep.” Countless valuables were stolen. Our neighbors lost over $1,500 in cash. Homeowners needed police escorts to accompany them, but the cleaners could go in without the slightest supervision. Up until today, when my mother and father enter, our place is still a mess, and the glass has not been cleaned at all. In fact, it’s worse than it was right after the disaster.

Then there’s the question of compensation. I can’t count how many times we victims have been insulted over this. It’s said we lack perspective, that we’re profiting from calamity. Let’s just look at those who survived among residents of my building complex. How long did they have to save to buy those homes? Especially those young people who scrimped and saved to buy their first home as a married couple? And when we bought in 2012, we had no understanding of warehouses storing dangerous chemicals nearby — that warehouse didn’t even exist then. After the blast, the chemicals haven’t been cleaned up, and the powers that be seem more interested in hushing everyone up. The contracts [they offered us] are full of holes and confusingly worded. They have offered to buy back the properties at 1.3 times [which likely refers to a multiple of either the home’s purchase price or its market value -Ed.]. Forget for a second that the number is unreasonable; the contracts don’t say when the payment will be made, how much time we have to vacate, or to what level we should repair the homes. They aren’t even 15 clauses in the whole document; how are we supposed to sign this? How dare we sign this?

The 1.3 multiple looks great, but it’s not enough money to buy another home nearby. It’s said prices in the area haven’t gone up after the explosion, but over the days that my mother and father looked at homes, the price of apartments in the area were going up. Not even a 1.5 multiple would allow us to buy a home comparable in quality.

Yet news reports say that over 70 percent of residents have signed the contract. That’s true. So did my family. How did we sign it? After a month of silence, during the military parade ceremony [in Beijing, which commanded much of Chinese media attention], leaders from some bureau came to the hospital to talk. After an hour of “chatting,” my parents signed. Hmph. How many other public sector workers signed, I don’t know.

News reports haven’t covered the “early signing bonus” policy put out by the powers that be. They said that those signing on Sept. 3 [the date of the military parade] would get a $3,135 bonus; later signatories would not. My 17-plus inches of wounds ([classifying me as] lightly injured) got us $470. My mom’s 20-plus stitches got us $313. They’re still estimating the losses to the inside of our home, and my dad and mom have been busy with that the last few days. As to compensation for missing work, missing school, emotional distress; it’s not even worth thinking about.

Some people say we’re being greedy, that we’re just taking taxpayer money — shouldn’t we seek compensation from the company responsible?

Ask me, and I have no fucking idea. The city government has been investigating forever, and still hasn’t found who’s at fault. Is it that regulation wasn’t strong enough, or that the company was taking advantage of a loophole? There are more questions than answers. Who are we, a group of little commoners, supposed to talk to?

It hasn’t even been a month since the disaster, and the explosion is already fading from public sight. Even when it had just happened, few people actually knew the victims’ situation. Most people thought that many residents had just received minor injuries. But many were seriously hurt. It’s just that at the time, the seriously injured were barely hanging onto life — how were they going to write about it online? And the newspapers weren’t going to tell you about the [most gruesome injuries]. Yes, we should praise the firefighters who gave their lives to save others, and we should grieve over those who died. But for us survivors, our lives have to go on. We still need outside help and attention in order to get back on track. Even if you can’t help, please try to understand our predicament. We’re just common people trying to get back to normal.

Image: AFP/Getty

David Wertime is senior editor of Tea Leaf Nation. David joins FP after having co-founded Tea Leaf Nation, a news site dedicated to Chinese citizen and social media, which was acquired by the FP Group in Sept. 2013. A former lawyer in New York and Hong Kong, David first encountered China as a Peace Corps volunteer. He has appeared on BBC television, Al Jazeera English, Public Radio International, Voice of America, and other outlets as a commentator on China. Originally from the Philadelphia area, David holds a law degree from Harvard and an English degree from Yale, where he was executive editor of the Yale Herald.

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