More than 12 hours after a massive explosion rocked China’s northeastern port Tianjin, killing at least 44 people and injuring hundreds, firefighters were still battling blazes as residents wandered through neighborhoods that resembled the aftermath of a war zone.
On the ground near where the blast occurred, police have blocked streets and set up strict controls to try to keep people from getting too close. Police said there is a risk of more explosions. There also are worries over fumes released by chemical fires.
Journalists, rescue workers, business owners and onlookers still skirted checkpoints to reach some of the worst-hit areas Thursday morning, where shattered buildings and charred vehicles lined the streets as some residents tried to gather their belongings.
Many wore facemasks to try to protect against smoke that may have come from unknown hazardous materials that were incinerated in the still-unexplained explosion.
The U.S. offered condolences.
"Our thoughts are with the victims and their families, and with China's first responders who are working to help those who were injured," National Security Council Spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.
At nearby Jinyu Lanwan apartment complex, with more than 10 high-rise buildings, the shockwave blew out most windows, completely exposing some family living rooms. Glass and debris littered the ground outside.
A police car parked nearby kept watch as some family members returned to their homes to recover belongings. Women, men and children, pulling suitcases behind them, could be seen all around.
Nearby one young migrant worker sat on the ground with friends. He looked exhausted. Like many, he said he thought the blast was an earthquake.
He said he was sitting when it occurred. “I saw a bright light and heard the blast and quickly started to run outside."
He said he doesn’t know what will come next for work. For the time being, he plans to head back home to Shandong province.
Migrant workers employed at nearby businesses may be some of the hardest hit by the destruction. By late Thursday there were still no firm figures on how many people may be missing.
Smoke still rising
Behind the apartment complex, more than a dozen police manned a key intersection, blocking access to a street that leads to the area where the blast occurred.
More than 12 hours after the incident, huge billowing black and white clouds of smoke continued to rise into the air. Outside a metro station and across a major highway from the site, some structures were almost obliterated.
Not far away, VOA reporters met a truck driver surnamed Zhang who was trying to drive his car home from near the blast site. Shirtless and seemingly still in shock, he talked about how he and other drivers had managed to escape unharmed.
When the blast occurred, Zhang said he just ran. “It’s all a blur to me now, when everyone else ran, I just followed everyone else, we ran in one direction and then back around again without thinking.”
It is still unknown what caused the explosion, which state media said occurred at a warehouse owned by Rui Hai International Logistics.
The first explosion, which took place just after 11:30 a.m. local time, was equal to three tons of TNT, according to the China Earthquake Networks Center. A second blast 30 seconds later was equal to 21 tons of TNT, it said.
"There was one gust of wind, an unnaturally large gust, and then a really, really, large gust followed by a bit of a shake," Drew Chovanec, an English teacher who lives about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the blast, told VOA. "We saw the plume of smoke and the light pretty clearly afterwards."
Tianjin is about 150 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Beijing, and is home to more than 7 million people. It is China's fourth largest city.
William Gallo contributed to this report from Washington.