I thought I was going to die: Tianjin residents recall their long night of fear
Some thought it was an earthquake. Others, a nuclear bomb. But it was unlike anything before
Residents of Tianjin, the largest port in the mainland's north, were stunned when a huge explosion sent a massive fireball into the sky and blasted shockwaves into their homes several kilometres away on Wednesday night.
The midnight sky lit up, windows were shattered, doors blown off, furniture destroyed and metalwork on vehicles buckled. Some thought it was an earthquake - one in nearby Tangshan in 1976 was the world's deadliest in the 20th century - while others said the scene looked like a nuclear explosion.
"I was in the bathroom and the building suddenly started to shake violently," said Gao Xiaorui, who lives a few kilometres from the explosion site.
"It felt like the building was about to collapse. I was scared to death."
Gao recalled that her residential building was immersed in the bright light of the explosion - before the area was plunged into darkness when the power failed.
Fearing for her life and her unborn child, Gao - who is eight months pregnant - ran down 16 floors of a dark, smoke-filled stairway. "I thought I was about to die," she said.
Gao ended up standing in the street with her neighbours until 5am. The night was filled with pungent smells and ambulance sirens.
A 28-year-old man told of driving with two friends across a bridge about 1km from the warehouse when the first explosion occurred. His eyebrows were cut and singed, and blood stained his face.
"We watched the first blast from the car - it was like fireworks being let off. But the second blast - with the shock wave - was much stronger," he said. "We saw a big fireball fall towards the bridge, with many pieces of metal falling with it. It was like watching shooting stars."
The three friends abandoned the car. The force of the blast buckled metalwork on the car and blew out all its windows, he added.
Zhang Siyu, who lives several kilometres from the epicentre, rushed downstairs without her shoes on. "I thought it was an earthquake … only when I was outside did I realise it was an explosion. There was a huge fireball in the sky with thick clouds. Everybody could see it," she said.
Zhang said she saw injured people, some weeping. Although she did not see anyone who had died, she "could feel death".
Truck driver Zhao Zhencheng spent the night in his vehicle after the blasts. "It was like what we were told a nuclear bomb would be like," he said. "I never thought I'd see such a thing. It was terrifying, but also beautiful."
Others witnesses also compared the blast to military bombs. "Our building is shaking. Is this an atomic bomb?" a frantic voice asked on one of the many amateur videos which captured the series of explosions.
Hospitals in Tianjin Binhai New Area were yesterday crowded with injured residents. Most had been cut by broken glass or struck by objects shot into the air by the blast.
A 27-year-old woman, surnamed Xu, had injured her right hand and was awaiting surgery.
She said she covered her head with her arms when the explosion shocked her flat, and shards of glass cut deeply into her hand.
Families of missing firefighters were also at the hospitals, hoping to find their loved ones.
The parents of an 18-year-old firefighter from Shandong, who had rushed to Tianjin, waited outside the intensive care unit at Teda hospital, after a fruitless search at several other centres. They had not heard from him since Wednesday night.
Additional reporting by Associated Press