42 die in Shanghai fire horror

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2010, 12:00am

At least 42 people died yesterday in a massive blaze in a downtown Shanghai apartment block that took off 'like a firework'.

Firefighters battled for hours at the 28-storey building in mid-afternoon while thousands of onlookers crowded the surrounding streets. The inferno engulfed the entire structure with intense flames billowing out of windows from ground to roof, sending a giant column of ink-black smoke into the sky.

The wail of sirens echoed around Jingan district, in the very heart of the city, throughout the afternoon and evening as dozens of fire engines, police cars and ambulances raced to and from the scene.

Police cordoned off streets for several blocks in all directions, causing major traffic disruptions in the bustling district.

The traffic chaos also appeared to be hampering efforts to fight the blaze. Even roughly an hour after the fire started, fire engines and ambulances were seen struggling to weave their way through narrow, winding streets, and gridlocked drivers largely ignored the sirens.

Around 10 to 15 people, many of them construction workers, were seen in mid-afternoon huddling on the windward side of the building's roof in an effort to stay out of the smoke.

Emergency services attempted to rescue them by helicopter but were forced to abandon the effort.

Shanghai authorities announced at 6.30pm that the fire was 'basically' under control and teams had begun searching for survivors.

Local television broadcast regular live updates from the scene throughout the day, reporting earlier that 90 people had been injured, at least one seriously.

Witnesses and early photographs of the blaze published on local news websites suggested that scaffolding enveloping the building for renovation had contributed to the size of the blaze and the speed of its spread across the whole building.

One sweet-potato hawker said he had been at the site shortly after the fire had started and believed the source of the fire was an apartment several floors above the ground.

'At first there weren't many flames, but I could see some smoke coming out,' he said. 'But then the scaffolding started burning, and when the wind caught it, the whole building went up like a firework. The scaffolding was all bamboo planking and plastic netting, so it caught fire immediately.'