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UPDATED: November 29, 2010 NO. 48 DECEMBER 2, 2010
Learning From a Tragic Blaze
The catastrophic apartment block fire in Shanghai is a warning beacon for China's fire prevention facilities

QUELLING THE BLAZE: Firefighters put out the fire at a 28-story residential building in Shanghai at 6:30 p.m. on November 15, four and half hours after it broke out (CHEN FEI)

Still basking in the glory of the World Expo, which ended on October 31, Shanghai was turned into a city of mourning after flames ravaged a 28-story apartment building, leaving 58 dead and more than 70 injured, on November 15.

On November 21, tens of thousands gathered outside the charred frame of the apartment block to mourn the victims. This largest mourning gathering since the accident marks the height of the mourning period, which, according to Chinese tradition, occurs on the seventh day after a death.

Now that one of the deadliest fires in the country's history has been extinguished, the nation has begun asking what could have been done to prevent such a tremendous loss of life.

Work safety stressed

Illegal work practices and lax government supervision were to blame for the fire, China's top work safety official said on November 17. Police have detained eight people.

Work by allegedly unlicensed welders, multi-layered subcontracting and poor management all contributed to the blaze of the building, which was undergoing an energy-saving renovation project, said Luo Lin, head of the State Administration of Work Safety, who also heads the investigation panel. Luo also blamed the improper use of flammable insulation made of Polyurethane to retrofit buildings for the disaster.

The fire that ravaged a building at China Central Television and killed one firefighter in Beijing last year was also triggered after fireworks lit up heat insulation materials.

The blaze in Shanghai is believed to have been started by sparks from welding, before quickly spreading to bamboo on the scaffolding and nylon nets shrouding the apartment building.

Several media organizations reported inhabitants had complained about safety hazards and the unsafe practice of workers throwing cigarette butts.

A preliminary investigation by a State Council panel found that multi-layered subcontracting, which is illegal in China, was behind the fatal fire, said Luo.

Bad management by the contractor and ineffective government safety supervision were also responsible, said Luo.

"The accident should not have happened and could have been completely avoided," he said.

"Though it is convenient to place all the blame squarely on the shoulders of a few unqualified welders, it would be pitiful if we therefore gave up exploring deeper reasons behind the accident. If any of our construction safety monitoring procedures had worked well, the damage that was done in the fire could have been mitigated and fewer lives would have been lost," writes He Renyong in an editorial on Rednet.cn.

The State Council, China's Cabinet, ordered a nationwide crackdown on lax monitoring and enforcement of fire-safety measures on November 16.

It required extensive campaigns to inspect and remove fire hazards and to educate the public about fire safety and controls, as well as strict implementation of an accountability system for fire accidents.

Shanghai Urban Construction and Communications Commission ordered all construction sites in the municipality to stop working and check potential security flaws from 9 to 11 a.m. on November 19.

On the same day, officials from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development ordered local governments to begin a campaign to inspect projects under construction to eliminate safety risks.

Local authorities should work on "effective prevention of accidents" and improve safety, especially in winter when fire and gas poisoning accidents tend to be more frequent, the ministry said.

Special monitoring of reconstruction work and of projects involving the expansion of existing buildings should be undertaken, it said, urging a "serious" crackdown on illegal practices during construction.

On November 17, the Municipal Government of Shanghai ordered thorough fire control and work safety inspections across the city to "learn a lesson from the fire."

It told all work units to immediately launch inspections, especially of construction sites. Those failing to reach safety requirements must suspend work while improvements are made.

In addition, authorities in charge of public security, work safety, construction, education, commerce and tourism must visit underground projects, public entertainment venues and densely-populated places to eliminate fire risks.

Inspectors are required to report the results of the inspections to their superior authorities by November 25.

Fire prevention facilities will be improved and fire-control training and education will be enhanced, it said.

In Beijing, a mass fire safety inspection was launched on November 17 when the city's top public security official, Fu Zhenghua, led inspections of some public sites.

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