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Tianjin warehouse explosion 2015

Tianjin disaster still scars firefighters’ families and friends one year on

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 2:12pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 August, 2016, 3:56pm

Former fireman Zhang Mengfan lost his best friend to the inferno ignited by last year’s massive explosions at a chemical warehouse in Tianjin’s Binhai New Area.

Zhang, 24, was working on the communications desk for his military firefighting brigade when the call came in.

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

He and his best friend, Zi Qinghai, who had spent almost 24 hours every day training to take fire alerts, sent the messages to the brigade.

Zhang remained at the post but his friend was sent to the scene with the rest of the crew.

Zi was among the eight members of the brigade who died. All the 18 others who returned sustained injuries of some form; four are still in hospital.

Watch: inside Tianjin, one year on

“Each time we go out on a fire alert, we know there is a risk – that’s part of our responsibility. But no one expected it to be this bad,” Zhang said.

In all, 104 firefighters – 24 who worked for the military and 80 contracted to the Tianjin port – died fighting the blaze that took three days to put out.

The fire is out but questions remain over just how prepared the emergency crews were to tackle such a disaster and whether procedural errors worsened the toll.

What happened in the Tianjin warehouse explosions: interactive timeline and map

Those questions haunt Zhang Zhao, the mother of Zheng Guangliang, who died battling the inferno less than two months after joining the port’s fire brigade as a contractor trainee fireman.

Zhang Zhao still cannot understand why her son had to attend the fire when he still had more than a month to go in his training.

Zheng, from Qing county in Hebei province, graduated from high school in June last year and signed up with the port in response to a recruitment advertisement, thinking it was a good way to keep up his physical training and maintain his fitness.

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Zhang Zhao said the contract stipulated that applicants would undergo three months of training and had to pass a test before they would qualify to work as firefighters.

“He went to Tianjin on June 13 last year, and became a trainee two days later. Why was he on duty that night before he even finished training? For the past year, I have not stopped asking that question again and again,” she said.

Officials at Tianjin port told her that in the circumstances, “everybody had to go”.

The family received 2.3 million yuan (HK$2.7 million) in compensation and Zheng was officially recognised as a “martyr”, an honour for those who sacrifice their lives for their country and people.

“To be honest, how can we even spend that money?” Zheng’s uncle said.

Watch: huge explosions rock Tianjin in northeast China

Zheng’s team was one of the closest to the blast site and they were among the first to arrive at the fire. Only one of his teammates, who went to fetch more water, survived.

The heroes who didn't return: Tianjin mourns firefighters lost in port blaze

Zheng’s body was found 10 days after the blasts and his parents had to provide DNA samples for comparison to confirm the remains were his.

Six days ago, an offer from a college in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei province, was mailed to his home.

“If not for the blasts, he would have quit that job and gone to college,” his mother said.

The past year has been difficult for Zhang Zhao and her husband: they closed their village restaurant and moved to a rented home in a township to avoid attention.

As the one-year anniversary approached, Zhang hoped to visit the blast site – for the first time – and hoped the authorities would organise a public memorial to the firemen who were killed there.

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“Only that will mean that my son has not been forgotten, the accident has not been forgotten,” she said.

“It was a completely man-made disaster, not a natural one. We [the families of the deceased firemen] only want a memorial to remind people that such a tragedy should never happen again.”

Zhang Mengfan, the former firefighter, is doing what he can to remember his colleagues.

Devastated by their deaths, Zhang resigned from the People’s Liberation Army’s firefighting wing and embarked on a personal journey, travelling to the hometowns of each brigade member over the last few months to pay his respects to their parents.

“They’re better now, as well, accepting the fact,” he said.

Watch: Families of missing fire fighters demand answers in Tianjin

He said he was getting over the sadness – “becoming numb” – after talking to the media often in the weeks after the disaster.

His plan now was to continue travelling around the country to gain life experience, and preparing to open a restaurant with a firefighter theme.

“I won’t highlight the accident or my slain colleagues, but will try to let more people know about firemen,” he said.

Excerpts from Zhang Zhao’s diary

August 12, 2015 is a dark day for us. A huge sound and a mushroom cloud put the end to a young life. A life disappeared in a fleeting moment, we cannot believe it, we cannot accept it. We were torn apart, we lost all our hope.

I cannot describe the pain. Who will take care of us in the future? There are only tears. Whenever I eat, whenever there’s a holiday – no one could really understand that pain, no one could replace [him].

People say we need to cherish time, but we don’t even know how we got through the past year, I have no idea what I did each day. It felt like living behind bars. Day in, day out. Each day was colourless.

The Tianjin mayor promised to build a park and set up a monument to remember [the killed firefighters] forever. But one year on, there is nothing.

I hate those corrupt officials who are above the laws. ... This is a man-made disaster. This is a crime.

People are forgetting. What happened yesterday? Maybe they will remember?

But we’re still living in the memories of August 12. This city of Tianjin is the beginning of our nightmare. It’s a door to hell.