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Aftermath of the Shanghai fire: poor govt. supervision and dodgy sub contracting

Jingan building fire morning_6.jpg
Photo by Jon Browning

A summary of the aftermath of the Shanghai high rise fire, and a translation by Duncan Hewitt of an Oriental Morning Post story about why the fire was so difficult to contain.

As DNA tests are carried out on the remaining unidentified bodies recovered after the devastating fire in central Shanghai on Monday, public and official reactions to the disaster have been growing more intense.

The death toll now stands at 79 and as relatives mourn their dead by burning paper money at the foot of the Jing An tower, the city's officials have begun to respond to public anger over fire safety standards in a city with 20m residents, most of whom live in skyscrapers.

According to a flash on Shanghai Daily's website, city-wide fire safety checks were launched yesterday. The alert said that venues – especially construction sites – which fail to comply with standards will be shut down.

Already the official leading the investigation into the blaze has blamed illegal sub-contracting and poor government supervision for the devastation. Luo Lin, director of State Administration of Work Safety said that the “terrible accident which should not have happened, could have been completely avoided”.

Two unlicensed welders, who are alleged to have accidentally started the fire, have been detained along with six others. Early reports suggest that the blaze was caused by sparks from welding tools which set fire to the bamboo scaffolding and green netting that covered the 28-storey building as it was being renovated and insulated.

Shanghai Daily identified the contractor of the insulation project at the Jiaozhou Road compound as state-owned Jing-An Construction Co and the sub-contractor as its subsidiary, the Shanghai Jiayi Building Decoration Engineering Company.

A Twitter alert from Luo Changping, the deputy editor at business magazine Caijing, said the company which started the Shanghai fire is owned by the wife of the chief of Jing An district.

The president of Jiayi, Huang Peixin, has been taken in for questioning by the police as reporters trawl through the firm's fire safety records which seem to show that it either failed to meet standards or to carry out safety checks in 2006 and 2008.

Neither the authorities' efforts to explain the fire, nor the arrest of several people thought to have caused the blaze have done much to stem the flood of increasingly angry comments circulating online.

The tragedy even drew Han Han, the rebel blogger out of a period of near silence (he has barely updated his blog recently and been refusing interviews). Han Han who happened to be in the area when the building caught fire, blogged:

“I'm in a forest of skyscrapers and this a puny 28-floor building. From my angle I saw only one hose that could reach as high as the 20th floor, with the rest hardly reaching the 10th floor. Even the helicopter was useless. Beyond providing reconnaissance, it could't do anything.

“I believe in this case that Shanghai brought out all the hardware it has to fight high-rise fires. All I have to say is, it's not enough.”

Some Shanghai residents, fearing for their safety, have been taking matters into their own hands. Sales of fire protection equipment has rocketed according to one store owner on e-commerce website Taobao. The online shop owner Peng Daoying said he had received "lots of online and offline orders ... as well as inquiries".

In a survey by Sina.com.cn, about the impact of the fire, more than 70% of respondents out of 36,000 expressed fear about living in high-rise buildings, while 90% said they were worried about fire safety systems in the buildings.

The New York Times reported that the Website Huasheng Online, run by a Hunan Province newspaper group, described the quality of urban construction in blunt terms before being blocked by the government censors: “These short-lived constructions are the great disaster left by the Chinese real estate industry's insane attempts to make money”.

Three big questions about the fire brigade’s response and rescue operation

By Long Yi, Oriental Morning Post, translated by Duncan Hewitt

Why did this fire get so big? Does Shanghai have sufficient emergency response and rescue facilities and strength to deal with this ... kind of fire?...

Leaders in the Shanghai Fire Bureau responded that Shanghai’s fire-fighting facilities are up to advanced international standards, and they have employed the most advanced current equipment and the greatest possible energy to extinguish this fire, both in rescuing people from inside or in putting out the fire from the outside. But tackling such a large fire on all sides of a high-rise residential building is a problem around the world.
Why did the fire burn so high?

Rescue workers at the scene explained that initially, it was mainly the plastic netting on the scaffolding on the outside of the building which caught fire, and that this is a highly flammable material, which is also very light, so as soon as it began to burn, blazing fragments of plastic netting began falling down, which spread the fire downwards.
When the blaze began, quite a strong north-easterly wind was blowing, and so fragments were also blown upwards and in all directions – producing a ‘flying blaze.’ Thus the fire spread both upwards and downwards, and quickly engulfed all sides of the building. The vicious flames on the outside of the building quickly destroyed balconies and windows, and the fire spread into every apartment. Soon the whole building was on fire, like a giant chimney…

The flammable material around the building, and the weather conditions on the day were thus major reasons why this became such a big disaster so rapidly.

Why was it so hard to save the people trapped inside?

According to some of the first rescuers to reach the site, by the time they arrived, they were shocked to find that almost every apartment on every floor of the building was on fire. This kind of three dimensional blaze is extremely difficult for firefighters to tackle, either from inside or outside.

Firstly the channels for tackling the fire from the inside were blocked. By then there was very thick smoke in the building, the temperature was very high, and the fire was already blazing viciously. Rescue workers estimated that the temperature inside the building could have been as high as 1500 degree centigrade. “We could vaguely see the silhouettes of some trapped residents at the windows, and we all wanted to burst in [to rescue them], but the temperature was just too high, and the smoke too heavy – many people forced their way in, but were driven out by the temperature and the thick smoke.” One firefighter who took part in the rescue said: “Some fighters forced their way inside to rescue people, but then fainted as a result of the scorching temperature and exhaustion.”

The firefighters who went into the building not only had to try to put out the fire, but also search for trapped people. There were six apartments on each floor of the building, and because the fire was burning inside each apartment, that meant a complex process of breaking in, putting out the fire and rescuing the residents each time. There were many people trapped in the building, and the majority were old people and children who are particularly vulnerable in a fire, which made the rescue work particularly hard.

Despite this, the Shanghai fire brigade mobilized a major force and did all it could to save the trapped people, carrying out a blanket search which left no corner unchecked. Some residents were rescued after being found by the firefighters in fridges or in electricity network rooms in the corridors.

The breathing apparatus worn the firefighters consists of an oxygen canister with enough oxygen for between 25 minutes and half an hour. The firefighters have to climb up through the building carrying this heavy apparatus, break down doors, put out flames, and when they find people carry them out of the building – they might use up a whole oxygen canister to rescue one person. Many firefighters covered their faces with wet towels and went into the billowing thick smoke which filled the building, in order to save oxygen for the trapped residents, to whom they lent their oxygen masks.

The other reason was that the area of the fire was too large. Because the fire was burning over such a large area around the building, it meant that the time it took for the interior to start burning out of control was greatly reduced. The fierce flames around the exterior also made it impossible for the people trapped inside their homes to get near the windows and balconies to escape or call for help. In this case, some of the normal fire safety measures which people know, such as taking refuge on the balcony and waiting to be rescued, were of no use.

Can Shanghai’s current fire-fighting facilities cope with fires in high-rise buildings?
Morning Post journalists have learned that all Shanghai’s helicopters, a fire engine with a 90 meter ladder and all the vehicles with hydraulic platforms which can be used for putting out fires in high rises were used in yesterday’s rescue operation.

Two helicopters raced to the scene, and apart from providing visual updates of the situation, they also twice tried to fly close to the building, in an attempt to rescue people who they had seen calling for help from the roof, using ropes. But it was to no avail, as the smoke and flames were too great: not only was the visibility very poor, but the rescuers themselves would have been in serious danger if they had descended on ropes. And according to expert analysts, the powerful gusts of air created by a helicopter hovering over a blazing building might fan the flames, and impede efforts to put out the fire and rescue residents.

Shanghai currently has one fire engine with a 90 meter ladder, which raced to the scene yesterday, but because the building was on fire from all sides, it could only block off the flames in one direction.

There were also various types of water pumping vehicles with hydraulic platforms at the scene, including 32m and 50m, which effectively controlled the fire within the distance they could cover. But because the fire was not only on the outside of the building, but also burning inside each apartment, sources say that these vehicles used water cannons but because the fire was burning in so many places, they had to extinguish the blaze one window at a time.

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Comments on Aftermath of the Shanghai fire: poor govt. supervision and dodgy sub contracting

"A Twitter alert from Luo Changping, the deputy editor at business magazine Caijing, said the company which started the Shanghai fire is owned by the wife of the chief of Jing An district."

Overheard this week...

"Hey Sweety, can you pass me the Chicken Feet...? Try not to burn them OK?"

"I said I was sorry!!"

The one thing that caught my eye was the issue of "blocked pipes" - i.e. the emergency water routing piping for fire departments to pump water into the building into the sprinklers. Poor construction, or red envelopes to the right officials?

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