BEIJING — Last Wednesday night, 25 members of the fifth company of the Tianjin Port Group fire department rushed to the site of an explosion.
They were mostly young men, some just new-in-town teenagers. Eleven hailed from the same county in Hebei province, at least two from the same small town.
None made it out.
Now, almost a week after the massive, chemical-fueled blasts that left more than 100 dead and dozens missing, the fate of these young contract firefighters has become a focal point in a story that has gripped China and sent authorities scrambling to stay ahead of mounting public rage.
Chinese officials have yet to say conclusively what caused the blasts but have acknowledged that there were dozens of types of chemicals on site, including a reported 700 tons of sodium cyanide, 800 tons of ammonium nitrate and 500 tons of potassium nitrate.
State media on Tuesday reported that the company that ran the warehouse, Tianjin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai International Logistics, did not have permission to handle dangerous materials for much of the last year. They also announced that 10 executives from the company have been detained.
With each revelation have come questions about how the young firemen were hired and trained, and whether they were prepared in any way to fight a large-scale chemical fire. Indeed, experts believe that their initial response — spraying water — may have actually caused secondary explosions.
Even as their loved ones wait for word on what happened, their stories have become a rhetorical battleground as China weighs the meaning of yet another industrial disaster.
Are the missing men and boys, as Premier Li Keqiang put it Sunday, “guardian angels” who died for some unnamed but noble national cause? Or, asks an angry public, did they, like so many young migrant workers before them, die in vain, collateral damage in the affairs of the country’s corrupt, connected elite?
For the government, these dueling narratives are a test of its prodigious powers of information control and “public opinion management.” For the parents and relatives of the missing, they bring only anguish, doubt and grief.
Many of them have gathered in Tianjin, where this week they waved placards and tried to storm a news conference in front of local and foreign press.
They say they have been given little to no information about their family members and that the names of some firefighters are absent from the official tally of dead and missing.
One mother, Wang Liying, said she could not understand how her son, Yuan Xuxu, 18, was sent first into such a blaze.
Yuan had followed three friends from their hometown in Hebei province to Tianjin when he was still a teenager, she said, and found work as a contract fireman for the state-owned enterprise that runs the port.
When she urged him not to go — why leave home so young? — he persisted, saying he didn’t have the grades to do much else and hoped to do something meaningful, even “glorious,” along the way.
But work there was not what he imagined. The salary was low, and like many other workers in China’s vast and scarcely regulated migrant labor force, he had to fight and fight for his pay.
Frustrated, he quit and returned to Hebei, only to venture back to Tianjin about three months ago. The last time they spoke, he promised to buy her some new, less threadbare, clothes.
“He was so new, so young and inexperienced,” she said. “He shouldn’t have been there.”
When he toured the site on Sunday, Li promised that contract firefighters like Yuan would receive the same recognition and compensation as those who work on government teams.
All of them, he said, are “heroes.”
Liu Liu contributed to this report.