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Tianjin warehouse explosion 2015

Comfort of home still out of reach as residents return one year after fatal Tianjin blasts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 August, 2016, 3:59pm

Tianjin resident Ms He was readying her three-month-old daughter for bed a year ago when loud booms rocked her flat.

The family, including their teenage son, lived in the residential buildings closest to the port city’s Binhai New Area, where two massive explosions and an inferno erupted on August 12, 2015, destroying buildings and claiming 173 lives.

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No one in the family sustained life-threatening injuries but all, including the baby girl, were cut by flying glass from shattered windows.

“If not for my husband – he was really quick and wrapped my daughter and me in a blanket – we’d have been doomed,” she said.

Watch: Inside Tianjin, one year after disaster

The family had to move out but a year later they have started moving back into their flat on the fringes of the blast site, one of the few families to do so.

Their move is one sign that life near the explosion zone is slowly returning to normal, but there is still a long way to go for the city and its people.

He’s family, originally from Anhui province, bought the flat in 2010, paying in full. They had moved to the city so their son, now 17, could get a better education and a higher chance at getting into university.

They spent the past year without a place to call home, first staying at a shelter at a nearby school, then in a rental property, receiving a 2,700 yuan (HK$3,150) government subsidy each month until the end of June.

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The family also received a payout equivalent to 16 per cent of the price they paid for the home as compensation for damage.

“But what about the emotional trauma?” she said. “I still feel scared whenever I hear thunder.”

He said that of more than 3,000 households who used to live in the community, only about 200 had chosen to return.

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For her, evidence of that terrifying evening remain all around her, including on her daughter.

“The scar [from the shattered glass] is still there and is growing with her, as the wound was pretty deep,” He said.

Another resident, surnamed Yan, also chose to return with her family to their damaged home.

Recalling the night in vivid detail, Yan said she and her husband were having a late dinner when the explosions broke out just 800 metres away.

“At first it was a rumble, like thunder. I went to close all the windows,” she said.

“Minutes later, there was a second rumble. Luckily I was not curious to check what was going on outside, otherwise I’d have gone with the balcony.”

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Her balcony on the first floor of the building was blasted away, and the flat was filled with shattered glass and broken furniture.

They moved back in February after refurbishing the property, although outside, she said, everything remained a mess for months.

“It felt like living in a refugee camp,” Yan said.

Most of the people who lived in the seven residential communities hit hardest by shock waves sold their properties to government-backed real estate companies and moved out, creating an eerie silence in what used to be one of the busiest parts of the port.

A state-owned construction company was put in charge of repairing damaged windows and doors and clearing flats of abandoned belongings.

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A worker said renovations started in late August last year, and were about to be finished. The keys would then be handed to a real estate company controlled by the Tianjin government but it was not clear when, or even if, the renovated homes would be resold.

The greatest work, though, remains undone at the epicentre.

At ground zero of the blasts, most of the damaged buildings have been removed, except for one battered warehouse.

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To the north of the two craters created when the shipments of explosive materials ignited, soil is piled high in heaps, covered with white and green canvas sheeting.

Further north, two pools hold groundwater contaminated in the blasts’ aftermath. Large signboards warn: “Stay away to ensure your safety. The water is deep and contains cyanide.”

The site of the explosions is still off limits to the public and, within a radius of about 2km from the blast craters, several commercial office buildings remain shattered and empty.

A nearby light-rail station and adjacent residential buildings are still under repair.

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The Tianjin municipal government had ambitious plans to turn the whole area into a park by the end of last month but that deadline came and went as treating the contaminated water and soil had proven more difficult than expected.