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Firefighters' Families Demand Answers About Tianjin Chemical Explosion

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's hear now about a place that has been described as a smoldering apocalypse. The Chinese city of Tianjin, not far from Beijing, was the site of two massive chemical explosions last week. Of the 114 people confirmed dead so far, almost a third were firefighters, and dozens more of their colleagues are missing. Emily Rauhala is Beijing correspondent for The Washington Post, and she says it appears the firefighters were not properly trained.

EMILY RAUHALA: What we think happened is that they were sent in not understanding exactly what was stored there or perhaps not understanding the chemistry of how to tackle that kind of fire. That said, access to information about who sent them in at what time and what they encountered when they first got there is incredibly limited, and the government isn't really saying much. They're making a big effort to control this story.

GREENE: Control - that, of course, is nothing new in China. This is how the government handles disasters.

RAUHALA: It's been really fascinating to watch the government's response to this. In the last sort of major tragedy in China, which was the river boat that sunk, it happened in an isolated area, and the government was able to sort of shut down the scene and control information. In this case, even if they wanted to do that, they haven't been able to successfully sort of block reporting. And as, particularly, China's reporters have started to break elements of this story, the government's realized they've got a big problem on their hand, and responding to this public outcry, they've started to say, you know, we hear you. We promise to be transparent. Here is the information we have. What's interesting, I think, is the extent to which the public is not buying it.

GREENE: And is that something new in China, the fact that many Chinese citizens are demanding to know more and not believing their government right now?

RAUHALA: I don't think it's something new, but I think their voices are being amplified. This happened, you know, in the middle of the night before the local propaganda officials could do anything. This footage was all over not just local media, which they can scrub, but all over international news as well. So I think, you know, the frustration and anger with the government response to the tragedy is not new. But in this case, that anger is being voiced and beginning to feed off of itself.

GREENE: I know this is still playing out, obviously, but if the government is feeling this pressure and if they do begin to evolve and become more transparent in some ways, there are - the potential of this disaster could be a turning point in some way.

RAUHALA: Yeah, I mean, it will be really interesting to see how it does play out. It could go one of two ways. It could be a turning point where, you know, they really do let Chinese reporters and foreign reporters do their job and let them sort of find out what's happening in this case and release some of those details themselves. Or it could revert to sort of the old pattern, which is, yeah, we'll let you start to report, but if anything gets too close to home, if you start questioning the central government, we're going to scrub it from the Web. And, I mean, we've already seen some excellent reporting by Chinese journalists that's been put online and then pulled down, so I'm not convinced that they're going to let reporters at this story just yet.

GREENE: And based on other events like this - you mentioned the river boat accident and other disasters that the Chinese government has tried to manage - I mean, what have we learned from those other incidents? Do we ever really get to the bottom of what happened?

RAUHALA: Well, that's a question that a lot of people here are talking about. They look back to the Sichuan earthquake, where, you know, it emerged that a lot of the children who died had died because they had been in sort of shoddily built schools. And some of the commentary I've seen online over the last few days, people have asked, you know, when is the right time to ask those questions about the cause of tragedy? When can we ask what caused this? If it's not now, when is it? And I think that is a really fair question. Will the government investigate this and implement a new regulation, whether it's in terms of the storage of chemicals, whether it's in terms of zoning laws, or, you know, the links between big business and party officials?

GREENE: We've been speaking to Emily Rauhala. She's a correspondent for The Washington Post based in Beijing. Emily, thanks very much.

RAUHALA: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.