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TIANJIN, China — A strong breeze blew through an open window of Florida native Drew Chovanc's home in Tianjin, China, as he watched a movie with his girlfriend Wednesday night.
They didn't know it, but it was the first warning that powerful blasts had started erupting three miles away in the Chinese port city. Seconds later, a more devastating blast hit with such force that they thought they were experiencing an earthquake.
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"It freaked us out, that’s for sure … it gave us quite a shock," said 25-year-old Chovanec, who moved to Tianjin two years ago to work as an English teacher.
"There was a strong rumble and we were like, 'What was that?' And then the 'boom' came," he said.
Chovanec ran upstairs to get a better look out of his skylight window. It was then he first saw the towering plume of smoke rising above the city.
The blast in the warehouse district of the city killed dozens of people.
Like many residents in the city, Chovanec's attention has now turned to fears that the explosion may have spread toxic gases in the air.
"Officials have confirmed that some chemicals have been released into the air but as far as the level of danger is concerned they have been far more vague," he said. "The Chinese here are split between evacuating or staying, on account of the air. My girlfriend is begging for us to go downtown or to Beijing."
Even closer to the blast, around two miles from the epicenter, 54-year-old Ray Cline had been attempting to get to sleep in his hotel room.
"My bed was shaking and things were rattling," said Cline, who was working in the city as a welding engineer at the time. At first the Tennessee native thought the noise may have been a celebratory fireworks display, but seconds later he said he "heard an extremely loud explosion and the building felt like it was swaying."
He said he remembers thinking "I hope this is going to stop real soon because if it gets any worse I would be in great peril."
Cline got out of bed to be greeted by the sight of "an extremely tall plume of smoke that was rising up above me and the hotel."
He added: "When I saw that plume of smoke I thought to myself, 'That's extremely bad.'"
Also near the blast zone, American restaurant owner Michael Dority said there were "buildings shaking, doors rattling" following the blast. "It seemed like it may have been an earthquake to start with," he told NBC News from his restaurant in the city.
Dority, originally from North Carolina, said that it was once he "saw a big cloud of flammable stuff...we realized there has been an explosion."
He added: "Everybody is shaken up about this disaster and very saddened by the loss of life and property, but we know everybody will pull together and will get the situation under control."
Alexander Smith reported from London.