Tuesday, December 1, 2015   

Inferno toll 39 dead, 81 injured

Yonden Lhatoo and Yau Wai-ping

Friday, November 22, 1996

"This is plainly a terrible tragedy. Our life is still marred by too many preventable tragedies."

Yonden Lhatoo

and Yau Wai-ping

T HE death toll in Hong Kong's worst building fire rose to 39 yesterday, as it was revealed that a welder's spark was most probably to blame for the inferno at a Yau Ma Tei shop and office complex.

The blaze ripped through the 16-floor Garley Commercial Building after fully sealed windows at a ground-floor department store acted like a "pressure cooker" that sent flames soaring up through the premises, a senior fire services official said.


Another 81 people were injured in the blaze that was finally put out at 1.47pm yesterday _ 21 hours after it began.

Of the dead, 22 were in a workshop run by Chow Sang Sang Jewellery that occupied two rooms on the 15th floor where most of the charred bodies were found. Other remains were found on the 13th and 14th floors.

Now there is the grim task of identifying the bodies, most of which are charred beyond recognition.

So far only six bodies have been identified, including senior fire officer Liu Chi-hung, 36, who fell down a lift shaft on Wednesday while searching for victims.

A special police team has been brought in for the first time in 10 years to help with identification.

Among those confirmed dead were two men, Leung Chun-man, 59, and Choi Man-king, 75, and three women, Yau So-hing, 36, Annie Ho Ying, 47, and Leung Yam Shuk-kwan, 55.

Choking back tears as he confirmed the death toll, Governor Chris Patten said a full judicial commission of inquiry could be set up.

First he would await the reports of two specialist teams from the Buildings Department that would investigate the blaze. Their findings were expected within a fortnight.

Director of Fire Services Peter Cheung said: "Witnesses have told us that during maintenance work in the lift shaft, sparks from a welding torch could have landed on some inflammable material and started the fire.

"The lift shaft carried the flames up to the upper floors and the design of the building was such that it spread rapidly."

Mr Patten urged legislators to speed up the passage of a bill aimed at upgrading the fire safety standards of some 500 premises across the territory that fail to meet present requirements.

"This is plainly a terrible tragedy," Mr Patten said.

"Our life is still marred by too many preventable tragedies."

In addition to messages of regret and sympathy from top government officials, Queen Elizabeth and British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind also sent their condolences.

And in a rare news dispatch, China expressed condolences while urging better safety measures.

"We share the public mourning and shock," a Xinhua spokesman said, adding: "The relevant government departments should improve anti-fire measures and ensure public safety."

Director of Buildings Dr Choi Yu-leuk said it would take the Buildings Department about three days to decide whether the building could be reopened.

Yau Ma Tei police divisional commander Paul Deal said police had begun to interview witnesses.

"I've got one of my officers who's lost his wife in the fire. Everyone is going to be touched by this," he said.

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