Tianjin warehouse explosion 2015

Forget them not: Relatives protest over contract firemen missing in China's Tianjin blasts

Relatives protest at district government office, demanding updates on missing contract workers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 August, 2015, 11:50pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 4:07pm

The families of dozens of missing contract firefighters on Sunday staged a demonstration in the wake of the deadly blasts that rocked the port city of Tianjin, after growing frustrated with days of silence from officials.

About 50 relatives from Tianjin, Hebei and Shandong marched in scorching heat to the district government office at around 10am.

Several people blocked three lanes from the Tianjin Port Hospital to the government office, displaying a banner saying, "return our sons, give our families an explanation".

"We've been here for four days, but still haven't met anyone who can tell us anything useful," said Yuan Chenggang outside the entrance of the Tianjin Binhai New Area government office. His 18-year-old fireman son, Yuan Xuxu, is missing.

Distraught family members called for fair treatment for their relatives, the first batch of contract firefighters deployed by the Tianjin Port Group. Only a few of the first three teams to arrive at the scene have emerged alive. Some have been declared dead and the rest remain missing.

These firefighters operate "outside the system" - they are not controlled by the public security ministry, but by enterprises and institutions. Their families claim they have not been included in the death toll figures and that not enough is being done to trace those missing.

On Sunday, the authorities released for the first time the number of those "forgotten" firefighters still missing.

According to Beijing military command chief of staff Shi Luze, 85 firefighters have been reported missing, of whom 72 are from the Tianjin Port Group's fire department.

The relatives had over the past days asked why no information was being provided on the port group's firefighters while constant updates were flowing in about those under the Ministry of Public Security.

Yesterday, the protesters tried repeatedly to force their way past police officers guarding the gates of the district government office. Paramilitary police officers arrived to reinforce security about half an hour later and drove the protesters away to the district petition centre nearby.

Watch: Families of missing fire fighters demand answers in Tianjin

There was much shouting, wailing, pushing and shoving during the 40-minute protest. The families also met a Tianjin Port Group executive.

Clasping the executive's hands, Sun Liyuan, the sister of dead fireman Sun Yunfei, cried: "We were told my brother is dead. We want to see his body."

Sun Yunfei's wife, who was six months pregnant, was also killed. She was in his dormitory that night, and the building was destroyed in the explosions.

A plain-clothes policeman at the protest site said officers had been called to help bring out as many corpses from the accident scene as they could, but that the bodies were not included in the official death toll figures.

The officer, employed by the port group, said his job was similar to that of the contract firefighters in that he performed police work but was not entitled to the same benefits as police under the Ministry of Public Security.

"Not just [the firefighters], two of our deputy chiefs are dead and our chief is severely injured. I don't know if anyone cares about that," the officer said.

At a meeting with district head Zhang Yong later, the families were promised that their missing relatives would be recognised and commended for their work.

Most of the relatives seemed reassured and said they expected further updates on their loved ones in the coming days.

Premier Li Keqiang visited the blast site yesterday afternoon. He told Hong Kong Cable Television that all firefighters would be treated equally.

The death toll from the blasts has risen to 112, with 95 people - including the firefighters - still missing.