More than 12 hours after massive explosions rocked the northeast Chinese port of Tianjin, killing at least 50 people and injuring 700, firefighters were still battling blazes as residents wandered through neighborhoods that resembled the aftermath of a war zone.
On the ground near where the blasts occurred, police have blocked streets and set up strict controls to try to keep people from getting too close. Police said there was a risk of more explosions. There also were worries about 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 face masks to try to protect against smoke that may have come from the incineration of unknown hazardous materials in the still-unexplained explosions.
Emergency personnel continued to search for those missing in the blasts, while a team of more than 200 military specialists, experienced in handling nuclear and biochemical materials, was sent from Beijing to assist in the response.
The cause of the blasts, which occurred at a warehouse, remained unknown.
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 spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also extended his condolences to the families of the victims, including the 17 firefighters among the dead, who he said "made the ultimate sacrifice."
At the Jinyu Lanwan apartment complex near the blast site, with more than 10 high-rise buildings, the explosive shock wave 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 didn’t know what would come next for work. For the time being, he planned 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.”
State media said the explosions occurred at a warehouse owned by Rui Hai International Logistics. Local authorities said the company's senior management had been taken into custody.
The first explosion, which took place just after 11:30 p.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 five kilometers (three 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.