China: Were 'hero' firefighters ill prepared for enormity of Tianjin blasts?

Story highlights

  • Firefighters in the Tianjin blast have been hailed as heroes
  • Questions have been raised about how they were trained and equipped
  • China has fewer firefighters than United States

Beijing (CNN)Yuan Yuan's grief for her only brother is tinged with anger.

Seventeen-year-old Yuan Hai was the youngest of 50 firefighters killed in the deadly blasts that hit China's port city of Tianjin on August 12. Of the 57 people still missing, 52 are firefighters.
    Her posts on Chinese social media after she learned of his death have wrenched millions of hearts.
    "Why were you so heartless to leave our dad and mom for me to take care of?" she wrote on a widely shared post on Weibo, China's equivalent to Twitter.
    "We didn't expect you to accomplish great things; we only wanted you safe; we wanted you back, we wanted you back. It's too cruel for dad and mom to see you die before them."
    Tuesday is the seventh day since the massive explosions, according to tradition a key time to mourn the dead, and thousands in the city took part in memorials.
    The nation has revered the firefighters dispatched to the apocalyptic scene as heroes.
    But critics say that the focus on eulogizing them obscures the fact that China's firefighters are poorly equipped and inadequately trained, especially young contractors, who don't enjoy the same military status or pension benefits as staff firefighters.
    Newly wed firefighter Yin Yanrong was among the dead

    Flawed response?

    State media, including national broadcaster CCTV, interviewed some of the first firefighters on the scene, who said that they sprayed water on the fire without knowing what was stored in the warehouses.
    That revelation has prompted many to question whether the firefighters' initial response -- trying to put out a chemical fire with water -- caused the subsequent explosion, as some chemicals stored in the facility are known to react violently with water.
    International procedure for incidents involving hazardous materials usually requires firefighters to identify the hazards and their locations before responding to the fire.
    Firefighter Wang Yuan, who was one of first firefighters at the scene, told Beijing News, a state-owned newspaper, that he and his fellow firefighters had barely been introduced to foam and sand -- regular extinguishers for chemical fires -- during practice. He told local reporters they had mostly practiced using water pressurized guns.
    After seven years of working as a firefighter, Wang acknowledged he did not fully understand how to put out fires caused by different chemicals, according to Beijing News.
    The Tianjin Fire Department declined to respond to CNN's questions, saying it was not authorized to speak to media. The State Fire Department didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

    'I found it hard to breathe'

    Speaking from his hospital bed, Xiao Xu, 18, one of the first batch of firefighters sent to the blast site, painted a scene of confusion. He said one of the shockwaves from the massive explosions sent him into the air and knocked off his helmet.
    "We hid ourselves behind containers, which were deformed by the blast wave, we walked through the containers but couldn't find a way out. Smoke and fire were everywhere and I found it hard to breathe," he said in a video carried by Reuters news agency.

    Poorly trained?

    Earlier this year, an anonymous firefighter told state media that although Chinese firefighters are required to spend a year of training before fighting fires, in reality, they normally go into the field after only a few months of training.
    "Many new firefighters don't even know the basic rescue knowledge when they are on the fire scene," one firefighter told Beijing News.
    China, a nation of nearly 1.4 billion, has about 150,000 official firefighters and more than 115, 800 contract firefighters, according to official statistics.
    By contrast, there were more than 308,790 staff firefighters in the United States in 2014, who are paid on average $48,750, according to the U.S. labor department.
    Firefighter Li Dong, in a statement posted on the State Fire Department's official social media account, said that his brigade's average monthly salary was $9,000 and they worked 335 days a year -- but suggested their low pay only served to show their love for the profession.
    "Don't compare us to Japanese firefighters, they rest 48 hours after 24 hours of work, and we only get one day and a half off every week. Don't compare us to American firefighters, either. They get paid $48,000 for 110 days of work every year."
    "Don't call us heroes; we don't want to be heroes, because we also have parents, wives and kids."

    Prime minister's promise

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    State media reported that the first three firefighting teams sent to the blasts were contract firefighters. Of the 50 firefighters confirmed dead, 32 were contractors, according to China's state broadcaster CCTV.
    Families of missing contractor firefighters stormed a press conference on Saturday, seeking answers amid allegations that contractors were being left off the official toll of those missing.
    On Sunday, Prime Minister Li Keqiang promised all firefighters -- whether staff or contractors -- would enjoy the same posthumous honors and their families would be given the same compensation.
    "They are all heroes and deserve the respect of the whole society," Li told state news agency Xinhua.
    President Xi Jinping has urged authorities to learn from the "extremely profound" lessons from the accident.
    He said severe work safety problems were exposed by the massive blasts, and urged authorities to keep "safe development" and "people's interest first" in mind to avoid future tragedies.
    In their reporting of the disaster, state media has focused on the rescue efforts, publishing the names and images of the killed firefighters, asking people to retweet and "remember the nation's heroes."
    Many Internet users were angered by this "old trick," as they put it, calling on the media and officials to seek out the cause of the fire and those who should be held responsible.
    "Isn't the hidden message behind the media reports that equipment is costly but lives are cheap?" one Weibo user, Chillyatolso, asked.
    "Did they really die for the country? they died for nothing," was her conclusion.