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Reflecting on the Hengyang Fire Tragedy

When fire broke out in an eight-story building in Hengyang City, Hunan Province on Nov. 3 it left 20 firemen dead, 18 people injured and over 400 homeless. The Ministry of Public Security has cited the tragedy as the worst accident involving firefighters since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. A joint investigation team of government officials and experts in the field is looking for answers. 

The investigation is still ongoing and blame is yet to be determined, however the accident has already given rise to much food for thought.


Underlying cause of building collapse sought


On Nov. 3, the burning building at Hengzhou Plaza in Hengyang collapsed suddenly while a team of fire fighters was working inside. Since then the focus of attention has been on finding the underlying cause of the collapse that claimed the lives of 20 young firemen.


Two groups of experts on fire control from the joint investigation team have taken on the difficult task of finding out why the building collapsed. "I've never seen such an accident in my life," said Jin Helong, a fire expert with 30 years' fire fighting experience.


Serious questions have been raised over the quality of the design and construction.  Why should a fire bring about such a catastrophic collapse of an eight-story building so quickly?


Li Wenge was the director of the board of the Yongxing Group Corporation, which undertook construction work at Hengzhou Plaza. It has been alleged that the corporation under Li's direction went ahead with the renovation of three buildings at the plaza without the necessary permit granting authorization.


When challenged on this issue prior to being detained in custody on Nov. 15, Li responded seriously and with sincerity insisting, "There was no problem with the construction quality. The fire was raging, growing wilder and wilder; it had been out of control for a long time. This was why the building collapsed." Li went on to blame the spread of the fire on the firemen saying, "They didn't arrive in time to put out the fire."


Dai Jianping, deputy director of the board of the Yongxing Group Corporation, said that the steel reinforcement embedded in the concrete deformed under the action of the high temperatures and ultimately this was what caused the collapse of the building.


Chen Jiaqiang is deputy group leader of the joint investigation team and director of the Fire Department of the Ministry of Public Security. According to Chen the construction company changed the design of the building without authorization. For instance, one or two more floors were added to the original seven-story building, the two staircases originally planned for evacuation were reduced to one and the whole first floor was converted into warehouses. These unauthorized actions created dangerous latent defects. "I've been involved in fire prevention for over 30 years. During this time I have directed firemen to put out thousands of fires but never before have I seen a building collapse completely within such a short time," said Chen.


Chen said that Li Wenge's accusation of blame directed against the firemen is groundless. The fire occurred at about 5 a.m. The fire fighters set off the moment they received the fire report. By 8 a.m. they had already brought the fire under control and some then went for breakfast. They were the fortunate ones. Had this not happened the casualties would surely have been worse when the building came down.


The work of the joint investigation team is ongoing as it pursues its inquiry into the cause of the disaster. As the debris is cleared away, the experts are carefully inspecting the scene of the accident. They will try to ascertain the initial source of combustion and the reasons for the severe blaze. On the issue of construction quality, samples will be taken of such materials as the concrete together with its steel reinforcement and sent to the relevant agencies for laboratory examination.


Unauthorized construction


Li Wenge has admitted that he undertook the Hengzhou Plaza project without all the proper formalities being completed and that the completed buildings were never subjected to inspection on commissioning. However as Li has repeatedly pointed out, "Working without authorization does not in itself necessarily mean sub-standard construction."


According to sources within the joint investigation team, Li did not get the necessary construction permit. He did not have a project-planning license. And what's more he had two different sets of drawings, one used for the actual construction and the other to show to the authorities.


Li has an explanation for his failure to have the necessary authorizations. He took on the Hengzhou Plaza in the mid-1990s encouraged by local government incentives in the form of preferential policies. The housing elements of the project were largely completed by Jan. 1998. As resettled households and new purchasers moved in ahead of schedule it became impossible for the authorities to undertake a comprehensive inspection of the project on handover.


Wan Changhong of Hengyang's Administrative Bureau of Construction Projects told a different story. "This is an unauthorized project," said Wan. "At no time since the completion of the project in 1998 did we receive the necessary report and no arrangements were made for the comprehensive check-up and acceptance procedures. In 1999 we imposed a fine on the Yongxing Group Corporation for building without the necessary licenses."


Three key questions emerge from a comparison of these different versions of events:


1) Were the authorities informed of the project in advance?


2) Did Li Wenge ask the authorities to inspect and accept the completed project?


3) After the administrative bureau became aware of the unauthorized project it took no action other than imposing a fine. Is this equivalent to acceptance of the project on a fait accompli basis?


Then there is the mystery of the house ownership certificates. According to the regulations, householders should not get these until after a building has been checked and accepted by the authorities. However the residents at Hengzhou Plaza got their certificates soon after they moved in.


"We had the house ownership certificates, everything seemed O.K. We knew nothing about whether or not the building had actually been checked and accepted," said Liu Shaode, a resident at Hengzhou Plaza.


"This really is a strange case. If a building has not been checked upon completion, the building company should not be able to acquire the house ownership certificates. The building should not be available for occupation," commented Hu Qibing, a domestic property lawyer with the Beijing-based Guangzhu Law Firm.


On these matters, certain officials from the local construction departments have remained silent.


Prevention is better than cure


So far, as a result of the preliminary investigations by the joint team, several suspects in the Hengyang blaze including Li Wenge have been taken into custody. If warranted by irrefutable evidence, they can expect severe punishment.


This disastrous fire has served as a wake up call with many lessons to be learnt.


"After we had moved in, the property managers rented out the first floor to self-employed vendors for use as warehouse accommodation," a resident with the surname Zhang said. "They regularly burnt sulphur to produce the smoke they used in processing dried fruit and nuts. The property management department paid no heed to this despite the fire hazard it represented. We even put up a petition but we never received a reply."


The realities of the urban layout of Hengyang city are a matter of concern. For instance many buildings are separated from their neighbors by no more than three or four meters. Residential areas and markets mingle with each other, making evacuation extremely difficult in the event of a fire.


According to He Renyu, mayor of Hengyang, as many as 18 superintending orders have been issued to deal with potential fire hazards in 2003. Of these 14 have not been fully implemented. To make matters worse, many contractors neither give notice of their projects nor apply for their construction permits. They just go ahead without authorization. The supervisory departments have turned a blind eye to this all too often. Of 132 projects under construction in Hengyang from January through September this year, 72 were unauthorized.


After the fire, the Hengyang municipal government initiated a general inspection to make a comprehensive list of buildings harboring latent fire hazards. The force of the law has been used to require several buildings that had been put up in violation of municipal regulations to be taken down.


This accident has sounded the alarm bells. There is a Chinese saying it is not too late to mend the fold even after some sheep have been lost.


(China.org.cn by Shao Da, December 1, 2003)

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