Tianjin: At least 21 firefighters have been killed and many more have gone missing trying to put out the huge fire sparked by powerful explosions at a warehouse here in the north Chinese city, marking possibly the highest number of casualties in the country's fire-fighting force.
Some reports said 36 firefighters are missing since the blasts late Wednesday that killed at least 56 people and wounded more than 720 people in what is described as one of China's worst industrial disasters.
This could be the highest death toll in a rescue mission for firefighters since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, official media reported today.
The rugged firefighters have emerged as the new soldiers to fight deadly industrial fires in China in the last two decades as the country ramped up manufacturing.
They won praise for rushing to deal with explosions while thousands were fleeing the scene.
As he headed to the spot, young firefighter Liu Shikang sent a message to his friend saying "if I can not make it, my dad is your dad. And remember to sweep my mom's tomb."
"When the blast occurred, several firefighters were working to put out the fire, and backup forces had just arrived. They were caught off guard, so the casualties are grave," Zhou Tian, head of Tianjin's fire department, told reporters.
Zhou said more than 1,000 firefighters and 140 fire engines have been deployed to douse the fire.
"It was complete darkness [and] my buddies were badly injured," said one firefighter who managed to escape, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Zhou Ti, 19, became the first and only firefighter who has been pulled out alive from the scene until this morning.
The first words he uttered after regaining consciousness were: "Have the flames been put out?"
Hollywood action superstar Jackie Chan donated 3 million yuan (USD 468,900) for the families of the firefighters who died trying to douse the fire.
Emergency response effort was suspended temporarily yesterday to avoid more casualties while military specialists have arrived to investigate the extent of contamination from the hazardous chemicals kept at the warehouse.