Last Wednesday, people living near the coast of Bohai Bay, in the southeast part of the port city of Tianjin, were awaked by the sound of sirens and the flickering of a fire. A chemical warehouse on the bay was ablaze, and several residents got out their smart phones and videoed the impressive conflagration as it illuminated nearby apartment and office buildings.

At 11:30 PM, eyewitnesses saw a blinding flash as a huge detonation went off, followed a few seconds later by an even bigger one that registered 2.3 on the Richter scale of seismographs many miles away. Acres of new cars awaiting shipments were incinerated, huge shipping containers were tossed around like matchsticks, and the confirmed death toll from the explosions has reached at least 118, with 70 more reported missing.

Hundreds have been injured, many seriously, and evacuations and property damage have rendered several thousand residents temporarily homeless. Sodium cyanide, a highly toxic chemical, has been detected in the port’s sewer system and the sewage outflow leading to Bohai Bay has been cut off.

At this point, there are more questions than answers, as reporters who attended a news conference called after the tragedy learned before officials abruptly ended the conference. Why was such a dangerous collection of chemicals stored within 2,000 feet of a residential area? What was in the warehouse that exploded? And last but not least, how can such a tragedy be prevented from happening again?

A chemical fire is one of the firefighter’s worst nightmares, even when the nature of the chemicals is known. The warehouse that exploded was owned by the Rui Hai International Logistics Company, which was unable to provide officials with a complete inventory of what was in the building when it caught fire.

Records indicated that the firm had a license to store calcium carbide, which produces highly flammable acetylene gas when it gets wet. And sodium cyanide is not something you want to spread around either—an amount the size of a single small pill can kill you. If there is enough left of the warehouse and its records to investigate, we will probably find out that there was a lot of something—ammonium nitrate, perhaps—stored in one big pile that went off all at once. Sadly, many of the fatalities were in the ranks of the first responders who approached the warehouse with fire hoses after the first alarm was turned in. Some of their bodies may never be recovered.

Years ago, in the late 1980s, I visited Tianjin during a trip related to my research activities. My first impression of the city came as we emerged from an underground railway station into a square which was dominated by a strange assortment of suspended wires that I recognized immediately as a shortwave transmitting antenna. This was back when shortwave radio was one of the main ways that people in totalitarian countries could get news that wasn’t controlled by the government. Accordingly, the government erected local shortwave jamming stations that tried to cover up Voice of America broadcasts with racket that sounded like a battle between two buzz saws.

Control of outside information is a lot harder nowadays because of the internet, and the government of China has quit trying to suppress undesirable information completely, as the aborted news conference proves. But just knowing how awful an accident is doesn’t guarantee that something will be done about it. Can we expect this horrific disaster to lead to any improvements in safety? That depends.

One thing that is clear beyond a doubt: people all over China and the rest of the world know how bad this explosion was. And at a minimum, the residents of Tianjin are going to demand changes in the way the port operates and keeps track of hazardous materials. Sometimes local politics in China is a lot more quasi-democratic than you would expect from a nominally totalitarian government system, in that incompetent heads roll and genuine reforms can take place if public pressure is great enough.

The larger question is whether the Tianjin explosion will create a drive toward safer operation of industrial facilities in general across China. The pollution problems in Chinese cities are notorious, with one expert estimating that 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. Lacking a formal means of influencing their government through meaningful elections, the Chinese people have taken to mounting lots of protests, and one Chinese Communist Party official estimated that in 2012 alone, about 50,000 environmental protests took place. This is evidence of a great deal of frustration on the part of the country’s citizens, who have enjoyed tremendous economic growth in the past few decades, but have paid the price by living in overcrowded, polluted, and increasingly dangerous cities.

There isn’t much that is nice about a totalitarian government, but you can say this—once the people in power make up their minds to do something, they can go ahead and do it without a lot of compromises and political bargaining. If Beijing wants to enact much stricter regulations about the types of chemicals stored in port warehouses such as Rui Hai’s, they can do so tomorrow. But regulations alone aren’t enough.

Tragedies similar to the Tianjin explosions here in the United States, such as the fertilizer-plant explosion near Waco, Texas, in April 2013, have emphasized how important it is for accurate inventory information to be available at all times to first responders, who in turn need to be educated about the various dangers and appropriate techniques that should be applied in case of a chemical fire.

Ideally, the Rui Hai warehouse would have been constructed and equipped with sprinkler and alarm systems so that it wouldn’t have caught fire in the first place, or at least the fire could have been extinguished before it got out of control. But despite the best precautions, chemical fires sometimes get out of hand. In that case, fire departments need to know when to try to fight a fire, what to fight it with, and when to look at the online inventory and decide, “Let’s issue an evacuation order and clear out ourselves too—this is too dangerous.” But there has to be an accurate online inventory and first responders who are trained to know what to do and when to do it.

These things are not rocket science, but they represent a change in the way people do things. Let’s hope that not only in Tianjin, but all across China, the sad lessons of last week’s explosions lead to safer ports and better information exchange in the future. 

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. 

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...