Daniel Van Duren traveled from Graham to China to find romance.
On July 12, Van Duren, 40, was on the 34th-floor rooftop of his girlfriend’s apartment building in Tianjin, southeast of Beijing. They were on the roof to watch a meteor shower.
The couple and two friends saw a flash of light behind them. Something was burning. Van Duren turned on the video on his phone.
Below them, they saw one explosion, relatively small. Then, perhaps 10 seconds later, came another, this one enormous. Fragments of metal exploded into the air like fireworks. A mushroom cloud rose from the inferno.
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Van Duren’s profane expressions of disbelief can be heard on the video.
“No baby! No baby!” he exclaims.
Then the video goes white as a third explosion, much larger than the previous ones, rocked the building. That was the point, Van Duren said later, he realized that many people below him had just died.
“I thought, how could anyone survive that?” Van Duren said, recalling the last two explosions in an interview this week. “Our building was shaking and you could feel the heat wave from the blasts.”
Van Duren and his girlfriend, Ying, took off running, dodging falling glass as they raced for the stairs and exited the building. Less than two minutes had passed.
Later that night, he said, against Ying’s wishes, he returned to the building to check on neighbors and retrieve some possessions the couple had left behind.
The next day, Van Duren uploaded his video to the Internet. It quickly went viral on YouTube.
Van Duren said he suspected the video would draw an audience. But he said he didn’t plan it that way. He said he only created a YouTube account recently, to share images of China with his family.
“I didn’t have any idea I would get a video like this,” he said. “All we did was go up to the roof.”
As of Thursday, at least 114 people had died in the explosions, including many firefighters.
Van Duren, an aircraft mechanic and a native of Newbury Park, California, said he came to China two months ago after making friends with Ying online.
It was his first trip to China, and he was impressed that Ying lived in such an attractive community of high-rise apartments.
Ying, 34, who as a Chinese national was reluctant to be identified more fully discussing the sensitive explosion, said she was even more shaken than her boyfriend after the explosions.
“My legs were shaking. I couldn’t even walk,” she said. “I was wearing slippers and got pieces of glass in my feet.”
Ying, a native of Tianjin, had lived in the area for the past two years, but said she had no idea a chemical storage facility was nearby.
“I knew there were factories several blocks away. But I didn’t know there was anything like this storing chemicals,” she said.
Van Duren, who may soon return to the United States because his visa is expiring, says he doubts his temporary Tianjin neighborhood will recover. He says he saw cracks in the buildings’ foundations.
“They have to be trashed,” he said.
Days before he took the video, Van Duren posted an image on Facebook of a nuclear explosion, as did many social media users in the run-up to the 70th anniversaries of the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
When his Tianjin video went viral, some of his Facebook friends asked him if he had a premonition.
“It wasn’t like that,” he said, embarrassed. “Nothing like that.”