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Deadly fire highlights China's growth problem

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Questions unanswered after high-rise blaze that killed 58 people
  • Activists fearing a cover up over who to blame have been naming victims online
  • The Shanghai tragedy has prompted public warnings about the need for fire prevention and safety
  • Work safety chief: The accident should not have happened and could have been completely avoided

"Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing, China (CNN) -- More than a month after a raging fire killed 58 residents of an apartment building in Shanghai, China's largest metropolis, nagging questions remain: Exactly what caused it? Are apartment residents safe? Survivors and families of victims are seeking a "jiaodai" -- an accounting -- and closure.

A preliminary inquiry shows that sparks from a welder's torch may have accidentally set fire to temporary nylon netting and bamboo scaffolding used for renovating the 28-story building housing 150 families, according to Luo Lin, head of the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS).

"Work by unlicensed welders, multi-layered sub-contracting and poor management all contributed to the blaze," Luo said two days after the accident.

Shanghai mayor Han Zheng said the city was partly to blame. "Poor supervision of the city's construction industry was one of the causes behind the high-rise building fire. And we are responsible for that," he told state-run Xinhua News Agency in late November. He has not commented publicly since.

For so many, the loss is deeply felt. A photo circulating on Chinese websites memorializes a one-year-old victim who reportedly died with his grandmother.

It shows a note next to a stuffed bear that reads: "Baby, hold tight to grandma's hand. May this teddy bear accompany you to heaven, where there is no disaster."

See more of CNN.com's China coverage

Some Shanghai residents are anxious. "I worry that the firefighters and their high-pressure hose cannot reach our floor," says Wu Dongyang, a private businessman who lives on the 16th floor of a 24-story building. "It's probably okay, but I'm just afraid of the unexpected."

Authorities have detained 12 suspects in connection with the blaze. Among them are welders, described by local authorities as "unlicensed" who allegedly violated safety rules.

"The accident should not have happened and could have been completely avoided," SAWS chief Luo said.

The official investigation continues. To get an update, we reached by phone the Shanghai Fire Prevention Bureau. They declined to answer our questions and instead referred us to the Shanghai Information Office (SIO) where an employee, who declined to give her name, advised us to check their website for updates.

We did and there was no update since a press conference on November 23. "The investigation team of State Council (China's cabinet) will release the final investigation result soon," she said.

Chinese authorities have not indicated if higher-level officials would be held accountable. In the past, top leaders and Communist Party elites have largely been immune from criticisms and punishment.

Lately, however, some officials have been held responsible for serious disasters that happened on their turf.

In 2008, for example, Shanxi governor Meng Xuenong was dismissed after taking responsibility for a mining accident in which more than 250 people died.

The Shanghai government has promised to compensate the fire victims, offering more than 900,000 RMB (about $130,000) per victim. Still, local authorities have declined to publicize the identities of all victims, citing privacy concerns.

Fearing a government cover-up, sympathizers of victims have turned to blogging to air their views about the disaster and hold officials accountable.

Ai Weiwei, an artist-activist who identified those who died in the 2008 Sichuan quake, has been using Twitter to share details of victims.

According to Luo Lin's preliminary report, 1,300 firemen from 45 fire stations responded to the alarm. Three helicopters were called in to assist but were prevented by thick smoke. It took four hours to control the blaze.

The upper portion of the 28-storey building was beyond the reach of the fire equipment, according to news reports. The fighters had to set up hoses atop a nearby building.

TV coverage showed people holding on to scaffolding, waiting to be rescued. Some were able to climb down to safety. Firefighters were able to rescue 107 people but many others did not survive.

Shanghai resident Wu Dongyang wonders: "If it can be so bad fighting fire in a 28-story building, what more if it breaks out in higher buildings?"

With more than 400 towering buildings, Shanghai claims to be a global leader in skyscraper construction.

In March 2011, Shanghai is hosting the 4th Annual Ultra-High-rise Building Summit -- which extols the merits of high-rise construction.

But the tragedy in Shanghai has prompted public warnings about the need for fire prevention, as Chinese cities continue to build high-rise structures to accommodate the burgeoning city population.

"The November 15 fire accident not only sounded the alarm on fire prevention," said Tang Xianxing, a professor at Fudan University. "Even more important, it sounded the alarm on the need for an emergency management system."

Most cities in China are supposed to have emergency preparedness plans for fires. China's parliament passed a fire prevention law in 2008 and has designated November 9 as the annual "fire-prevention day."

However, annual activities have been mainly confined to periodic fire drills and publicity activities that are usually limited to schools and government agencies.

China's cabinet now aims to change things. Days after the Shanghai fire, it issued a six-point directive, calling for a "nationwide crackdown on lax monitoring and enforcement of fire-safety measures". It also decreed "extensive campaigns to inspect and remove fire hazards and to educate the public about fire safety and controls."

Last year, Chinese police reported a total of 127,000 fires nationwide, killing 1,076 people, according to official sources.

The total casualty count may not be particularly high considering China's huge population. Still, the Chinese authorities are keen to mitigate the danger of fatal accidents, in the same way it is trying to contain the incidence of mining disasters -- which caused 2,631 deaths last year.

"Safety must be first priority," wrote the People's Daily in a commentary published days after the Shanghai blaze. "We want safe development, not development drenched with blood. Without people, what's the use of talking about development?"

Read last week's "Jaime' China": Why the Nobel peace prize upset China

 
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