Deadly Blaze Draws Criticism

Rescue efforts and building safety in China come under focus after a massive Shanghai apartment fire.

china-fire-305.jpg Fire engulfs a high-rise in Shanghai, Nov. 15, 2010.

HONG KONG—Authorities in Shanghai have detained eight people following the deadliest fire in the city in years, which drew criticism about rescue preparedness and a resurgence of interest in safety rules.

The blaze engulfed an apartment building in the most populous Chinese city on Nov. 15, leaving 53 people dead and more than 70 injured.

The disaster, in Shanghai's Jing'an district, was initially being blamed on unlicensed welders, city officials told a news conference following the blaze.

Some welders were among those detained, official media reported.

Shanghai municipal fire chief Chen Fei said the blaze erupted on the north side of the 10th floor of the 28-story building, which was home to 440 people, on Monday.

Sparked shortly after lunchtime, the blaze was believed to have been ignited during renovation work carried out by the Jing'an District Construction Corp. and Shanghai Jiayi Decoration Corp.

Emergency teams rushed to the scene shortly after receiving a report at 2:15 p.m. and the blaze was out by 6:30 p.m., Chen told reporters.

Strong winds

Only 100 residents were rescued, and it is unknown how many residents were home when the fire broke out.

The building was covered by scaffolding made of flammable nylon netting and bamboo, Chen said, adding that strong winds helped the fire spread.

A Shanghai resident also surnamed Chen said he could see torrents of flame pouring from the high-rise apartment block and massive billows of black smoke issuing from windows smashed in the extreme heat.

Rescue vehicles had crowded into the area, and the entire area was awash with water from high-pressure hoses, he said.

"The entire high-rise block was burned up," he said. "I haven't seen such a big fire in Shanghai in all the years I have lived here."

"There were a lot of people trying to climb out of the windows and waiting to be saved on the scaffolding."

Local media pictures showed the scaffolding netting that enveloped the building burning, with some of the iron poles turning red hot.

When the fire broke out, the building was occupied mostly by older people.

Enormous heat

But local resident Chen said the three fire trucks at the scene hadn't been able to get too close because of the enormous heat generated by the blaze.

"I was looking through binoculars, and I could see that there were people crying out to be rescued. After that, I couldn't see anything because the smoke was too thick."

"I don't think that a single person was saved by those fire ladders," he said. "When the fire is above the 14th or 15th floors, there's very little they can do."

During the fire, propaganda officials issued a warning to news websites to minimize coverage of the blaze, which was already beginning to ignite criticism of rescue attempts on popular websites and microblogging services.

"The news about the Shanghai apartment block fire should be removed from the headline position," a directive said.

"All material critical of the government should be removed from interactive environments, especially from microblogs," it added.

Official media quoted experts as saying that fire-fighting capabilities in many Chinese cities were inadequate for fires more than 60 meters (nearly 200 feet) above the ground.

Awareness low

Shanghai resident Tang Xiaozhao said general safety awareness among ordinary Chinese is still fairly low.

"I was only thinking to myself the other day as I left the office, even if there was a fire extinguisher provided, I wouldn't know how to use it," Tang said.

"I haven't had any kind of fire safety training."

The highest aerial ladder apparatus in China measures no more than 100 meters (nearly 330 feet), the official Xinhua news agency said.

The blaze has prompted a resurgence of interest in fire safety regulations in major buildings across China, with authorities ordering spot checks in the wake of the Shanghai blaze, it said.

Reported in Cantonese by Wei Ling and in Mandarin by Xin Yu. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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