Sprinkler system could have saved fireman, says ex-chief

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2007, 12:00am

Fatal flashover in Tsuen Wan blaze 'was preventable'

Fireman Wong Ka-hei may not have died in a blaze in Tsuen Wan on Tuesday if a sprinkler system had been working, a former fire chief said yesterday.

Preliminary investigations found that Wong, 27, was killed when he was hit by a flashover - the sudden ignition of accumulated flammable vapour in an enclosed burning area - at a factory.

But a valve controlling the water supply to an auto-sprinkler system had unaccountably been turned off.

'If the auto-sprinkler system worked, the flashover would not have occurred,' said Lam Chun-man, a former director of fire services. 'If there was no flashover, the chance of losing the life of this fireman would not have existed.'

Mr Lam said the sprinklers could have helped to contain the fire and lower the temperature. Flashovers occur at temperatures above 500 degrees Celsius.

The claim came as the Civil Service Bureau approved burying Wong in Gallant Garden - the official cemetery for government servants killed in the line of duty.

Wong's mother made a tearful request to the chief executive on Commercial Radio last night for her son be buried at a permanent site. She said: 'That's the only thing concerns me at the moment. I wish he could rest in peace in a permanent site.'

Earlier, Wong's older sister paid tribute to her brother. 'He sacrificed himself to save others. We are so proud.' She said an official funeral will be held on June 15.

The valve is located in the sixth-floor staircase of QPL Industrial Building. The public has access to the valve, and the Fire Services Department has set up a four-member team to investigate who is responsible for disconnecting the water supply. 'We are investigating whether it is a practical joke or other reasons are behind this,' said Kwok Jing-keung, the department director. 'We are following it up.'

He said preliminary investigation had found no notification to the department that the valve had been turned off for any fire service installation repair work. The department said there was no problem with the water supply to sprinkler systems on the other floors of the 23-storey building.

The building remained closed, and firemen and police stood guard outside because a large quantity of the toxic cyanide had been found. 'Cyanide is stored in a number of plastic containers. Some has been mixed with other chemicals and some has been contaminated,' New Territories South divisional commander Szeto Yat-san said.

Firemen and Environmental Protection Department officers are working on removal of the cyanide and other chemicals. Mr Szeto said they were investigating whether the factory was allowed to keep such a large amount of chemicals.

A spokeswoman for the Buildings Department said the structure was safe after the blaze.

Nine people including six firemen were injured. The condition of injured fireman Chin Kwok-ming, 45, has improved from critical to serious. He is in Yan Chai Hospital. The others had been discharged.

Wong's parents, dozens of family members and colleagues went to the fire scene for mourning rites. They were allowed to go upstairs with white lilies and chrysanthemums, joss sticks and paper offerings. His elder sisters cried out as they left: 'We lead you the way. You follow.'