'Forgotten' heroes: firemen of the Tianjin Port Group
Families of missing firefighters employed at port say they are treated as 'second-class' crews and not enough has been done to trace them
Wei county, an underdeveloped rural area in Hebei province, had never received much attention until yesterday when more than 50 heartbroken relatives of firemen tried to force their way into a press conference about the huge explosions at a dangerous materials warehouse in Tianjin.
"I need an explanation. I need to find out where my son is," said Wang Xiurong.
Wang is the mother of a fireman from the No.5 team of the Tianjin Port Group fire department. It along with No. 4 team was among the first fire crews to arrive at the scene of the massive blasts on Wednesday night. All 25 firefighters from No. 5 team are missing and at least 11 of them are from Wei county.
Big companies and enterprises such as ports and chemical factories are legally obliged to recruit their own fire departments to deal with emergencies.
These fire departments are often seen as lowest level in a three-tier firefighting system on the mainland. The first two tiers of firefighters are controlled by the Ministry of Public Security and local governments.
Firefighters working for emergency crews such as the No.5 team at Tianjin port work on contract and do not receive the same benefits as top-tier staff who have the same status as paramilitary police, according to their families.
The company firefighters are usually the first to respond to an alarm in their area as they are the closest, sometimes exposing them to the greatest danger, as happened at Tianjin port, said a source close to the operation and in charge of fire crews at the Ministry of Public Security.
The company crews are recruited and trained by their firms, said the source, under the guidance of fire departments controlled by the public security ministry.
But Wang Baoxia, the sister-in-law of a fireman from Wei county missing in the blasts, said the crews received little training
"They weren't trained when they were recruited. I don't know what kind of training they received later," she said.
She also alleged that some of firefighters from the county were under age when they were recruited.
Her brother-in-law Wang Quan, 39, was considered senior in the team, but most were in their 20s and several were 18 or 19, meaning they were recruited under the legal age of 18.
The source at the public security ministry said it was common practice to recruit men who were legally too young to join.
"Recruiters don't actually check the age," the source said. "The people applying give their ages themselves. So if they write 18 then we take it as 18."
Wang said that Wei county's economy used to centre on its coalmines, but since the closure of pits young men have turned to firefighting, deeming it a good career path.
Yuan Chenggang, the father of 18-year-old fireman Yuan Xuxu, another member of No.5 team, said he was not surprised his son had decided to join the fire crew.
"It's a job to make money, of course he would go," he said.
Yuan, along with other relatives did not know how much theirs sons made a month, but estimated it was just over 1,000 yuan (HK$1,200).
Some of the missing firemen from Wei county had only been working as firefighters for several months, relatives said. The families decided that after three days waiting for news of their loved ones they had to take action.
"We heard that there would be a press conference and some officials would attend, so we wanted to come and ask who do our children belong to? Not the police, not the military, not the government," said the aunt of a missing fireman. "Contract-based [firefighter] or not, all lives are equal."
Families were furious that official figures on the number of firefighters killed in the disaster only covered crews under the Ministry of Public Security and they are afraid that those not "in the system" would be forgotten.
Officials who arrived after the press conference told the families they were collecting DNA samples to help find their loved ones.
But when asked at a later press conference about missing firefighters in the Tianjin port teams, the chief of Tianjin's fire department, Zhou Tian, said: "The fire department of the Tianjin Port Group is not under the management of the public security ministry's Tianjin fire department."