Last Updated Aug 12, 2015 7:17 PM EDT
BEIJING -- Huge explosions at a warehouse for dangerous materials in the northeastern Chinese port of Tianjin killed at least 17 people, injured hundreds and sent massive fireballs into the night sky, officials and witnesses said Thursday.
China's state broadcaster, CCTV, said that at least 17 people were killed and that 32 were in critical condition in hospital. Hundreds of others were taken to hospital. The explosions late Wednesday knocked off doors of buildings in the area and shattered windows up to several miles away.
"I thought it was an earthquake, so I rushed downstairs without my shoes on," Tianjin resident Zhang Siyu, whose home is several kilometers from the blast site, said in a telephone interview. "Only once I was outside did I realize it was an explosion. There was the huge fireball in the sky with thick clouds. Everybody could see it."
Zhang said she could see wounded people weeping. She said she did not see anyone who had been killed, but "I could feel death."
Police in Tianjin said an initial blast took place at shipping containers in a warehouse for hazardous materials owned by Ruihai Logistics, a company that says it's properly approved to handle hazardous materials. State media said senior management of the company had been detained by authorities.
It's part of an industrial park, with some apartment buildings in the vicinity.
The official Xinhua News agency said an initial explosion triggered other blasts at nearby businesses. The National Earthquake Bureau reported two major blasts before midnight, the first with an equivalent of 3 tons of TNT, and the second with the equivalent of 21 tons.
Photos apparently taken by bystanders and circulating online on microblogs show a gigantic fireball high in the sky, with a mushroom-cloud.
In one neighborhood about six to 12 miles from the blast site, some residents were sleeping on the street wearing gas masks, although there was no perceptible problem with the air apart from massive clouds of smoke seen in the distance.
"It was like what we were told a nuclear bomb would be like," said truck driver Zhao Zhencheng, who spent the night in the cab of his truck. "I've never even thought I'd see such a thing. It was terrifying but also beautiful."
At the nearby Taida Hospital as dawn broke, military medical tents were set up. Photos circulating online showed patients in bandages and with cuts.
State broadcaster CCTV said six battalions of firefighters had brought the ensuing fire under control, although it was still burning in the early hours of Thursday.
Ruihai Logistics says on its website that it was established in 2011 and is an approved company for handling hazardous materials. It says it handles 1 million tons of cargo annually.
Tianjin, with a population of about 15 million, is about 75 miles east of Beijing on the Bohai Sea and is one of the country's major ports. It is also one of China's more modern cities and is connected to the capital by a high speed rail line.