Firefighter pays tribute to comrades slain in Tianjin blast

By China Youth Daily – Global Times Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/9 5:03:40

Zhang Mengfan Photo: CFP

For most people, the memory of the August 12, 2015 blasts in the coastal city of Tianjin, which killed 159 people, is fading away.

But for Zhang Mengfan, a firefighter with the Tianjin No.8 fire brigade, the explosions continue to haunt him.

The night of the explosions, Zhang was manning the phones at the fire squadron station. He saw his colleagues off in the fire trucks as they raced to the site of the blaze.

He had no idea that this would be the last time he saw them.

"I miss you brothers so much. You left in such a hurry. In the next life, if such a thing happens again, let me replace you," Zhang wrote in his Sina Weibo.

Eight firefighters from the No.8 fire brigade died that night. A total of 50 firefighters died in the blasts.

Two months after the devastating explosions, a construction team came to repair the exterior wall of the fire squadron. For the 23-year-old, the superficial wounds can be treated, but he can never "return to his past state."

He keeps telling people that he wished he had gone to the site of the fire like the others. Even if he had died or became disabled, he would not have suffered so much pain in his heart.

Unwilling to see people quickly forget about the explosions and his dead comrades, Zhang has set up a Sina Weibo account and QQ group, telling their stories to the public.

A fire truck extinguishes a fire after the August 12,2015  blasts in Tianjin.Photo: CFP

Change of plan

Zhang had expected to retire from the army four months after the explosion.

He had been due to receive a "good soldier" award and planned on pursuing a new career. But the incident changed everything.

After the blasts, many people mailed snacks, letters and money to the fire squadron. But some criticized Zhang and asked how he felt about living a "shameful life" rather than accepting a "glorious death."

Because Zhang had suffered an injury to his crotch and was in recovery, the brigade didn't send him to the fire that night.

When the China Youth Daily interviewed him after the explosion, he was unable to utter a single word for a long time.

His memory about what happened that night is a blur. He said it was hard for him to fall asleep, and when he did he always dreamed about his dead brothers.

Instead of applying for another job, Zhang made a decision after leaving the fire squadron.

"I want to keep all the things related to the blasts. These should become an eternal memory. I want to keep them permanently," he said.

Since then, he has spent his time recording every detail of the lives of his colleagues who died in the explosion on Sina Weibo. He also set up a QQ group to collect memories of the August 12 blasts.

He acknowledges that for many people, the blasts are a memory they don't want to linger on, but he still doesn't want his friends and the blasts to get forgotten so quickly.

On a journey

When he heard that Zhang had escaped death in a great calamity, his grandfather set off fireworks in their village in Central China's Hubei Province to celebrate. His return was a great relief to his family.

But Zhang didn't stay at home for long before deciding to visit his fallen comrades' families.

All Zhang's family members were against his decision, as he had never traveled far on his own. When he joined the army, he was picked up by military personnel.

The decision was an astonishing one. Previously, Zhang had been introverted and shy, and never even dared to talk to his neighbors.

But this didn't stop him. He told them that if he didn't do this, he would regret it for his whole life. He then started his journey.

He told the media that he wanted to see whether the families were recovering.

He did have his concerns before the journey, and was worried that he would be asked why he was still alive while his comrades were dead. He was also worried that his existence would be a reminder of the disaster to those families.

Right after the explosion, Zhang met these families and saw them at their most stricken, with one mother taken into hospital after suffering a stroke due to the grief.

"My concerns were unnecessary," he said. During his visits, he found that the parents began to behave differently. They no longer locked themselves in their rooms and refused contact with the outside world.

From their appearance, the saddest days seem to have passed and laughter has returned. In Hunan Province, Chongqing and Tianjin, Zhang was warmly welcomed by the parents of the dead firefighters. He stayed in the rooms that his colleagues once lived in and used the quilts that had once covered them. They treated him like their own son.

One mother has become pregnant through in vitro fertilization. Most of the families are trying to rebuild their lives.

Nine months after his retirement, he has paid visits to seven families of his deceased colleagues. After completing his visits, he said he will make plans for his future.

In his mind, a plan is developing. He wants to "set a meaningful goal," which is to open a firefighting-themed restaurant.  "Even the napkins in the restaurant should have a connection with firefighting."

Newspaper headline: Keeping the memory alive

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