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Memorial Outpouring Honors Fire Martyrs

More than 20,000 people from all walks of life gathered Sunday morning in Hengyang in central China's Hunan Province to mourn the lives of 20 firefighters who died while battling a blaze last week.

The 20 firefighters, who were declared martyrs in a memorial service, perished during the collapse of a burning building as they tried to extinguish the fire on November 3.

Attendees at the event in the city's Chuanshan Square included relatives of the firefighters, Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang and Acting Governor of Hunan Province Zhou Bohua, who hosted the memorial service.

Wreaths were laid around by fire services departments from 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, including Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions, along with Japan's National Fire Prevention Association.

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao expressed condolences over the heroic deaths of the firefighters and sent their sympathies to the fallen firefighters' relatives in written messages.

The Ministry of Public Security has honored the 20 firefighters as martyrs for their heroic deeds.

Woe and tears clouded the service as Xue Jiyong, father of the martyr Xue Xianglin, recalled his son.

"I feel proud of my dear son," Xue said.

"May you rest in peace, my dear fellow soldiers," said Yang Youliang, an officer in the Hengyang city firefighters unit.

Zhou Yongkang, minister of public security, praised the firefighters' deeds and "dauntless heroism" in his speech.

"These firefighters have set up dedicated examples for our university students," said Wang Kaibin of the Hengyang-based Nanhua University.

Numerous citizens in the country posted messages of sympathy on the Internet, honoring the men.

The Ministry of Public Security said it was the worst firefighting accident since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

The firefighters had rushed into the eight-story building just two minutes after a fire alarm was raised in Xuanting Village of Zhuhui District of Hengyang City at 5:43 am On November 3.

The eight-floor building suddenly gave way, leaving two dead on site and 19 buried. Only one man survived.

The fire was concentrated in a warehouse on the first floor. The fire fighters first safely evacuated all 412 residents in the building before beginning a two-hour battle against the blaze.

However, around 8:30 am, the building suddenly collapsed, burying 20 firefighters in the rubble.

Neighbors said the fire was probably caused by two escaped suspects roasting red peppers on the first floor about 4:00 am on Monday.

A guard working that night has been held by local police for further questioning and investigation.

(Xinhua News Agency November 9, 2003)

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