The below dashcam video purportedly shows the moment of the first blast, which illuminates the sky.
A damaged auto is seen at the site of the massive explosions at a warehouse in northeastern China’s Tianjin municipality.
“Only once I was outside did I realise it was an explosion. I first thought it was an natural disaster”, Guan Xiang, who lives 7 km (4 miles) away from the explosion site, told Reuters by telephone.
Two hospitals, a convention centre, several residential compounds and a football pitch were also nearby, it said.
In the past decade, around 285 Fortune 500 companies have set up bases in Binhai, which is a new growth pole in China and is a hub of advanced industry and financial activity.
The People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of China’s ruling Communist Party, said that the facility’s construction “clearly violated” safety rules.
Officials said earlier that 17 firefighters were among the dead and 18 others were missing, and have given no update since.
“We knew there was calcium carbide inside but we didn’t know whether it had already exploded”, said the China fire department’s deputy propaganda head Lei Jinde.
Two firefighters called to the scene were missing, Xinhua reported, as 10 emergency teams and 35 fire trucks battled the blaze.
President Xi Jinping demanded that authorities “make full effort to rescue and treat the injured and ensure the safety of people and their property”. The detonations were preceded by a fire, Chinese officials said on Thursday.
Anxious residents rushed to hospitals to seek news about injured loved ones. Police said there was a risk of more explosions.
Pictures on Chinese media websites showed residents and workers, some bleeding, fleeing their homes.
“If I don’t make it, please take care of my dad”, one firefighter wrote in a message to his friend before arriving at the blast scene.
The explosions late Wednesday knocked doors off buildings in the area and shattered windows up to several kilometers away.
Charred new cars in this nearby parking lot were reduced to blackened shells. An initial explosion apparently triggered an even bigger one. “Our building is shaking”.
“Because of the explosions in the Tianjin port area, no chemical and crude (oil) tankers are going in or out at the moment”, said the source.
Executives for Ruihai Logistics, the company which owns the warehouse where the inferno originated, were arrested, police said.
“The volatility of the goods means the fire is especially unpredictable and risky to approach”, Xinhua said.