Some burning questions for Shanghai leaders

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 November, 2010, 12:00am

Monday's high-rise inferno not only burned a hole in the heart of Shanghai, but also in the hearts of its 20 million residents. Such blazes pose difficulties for fire brigades around the world, but tough questions are being asked about how this catastrophe happened in the first place.

The local authorities' credibility is in jeopardy. After hosting a multibillion-dollar World Expo, declaring itself a world trendsetter in urban development, Shanghai - 'better city with a better life' - has to explain how it failed to make sure welders complied with basic work safety rules - the cause of the fire, investigators say. And the list of questions does not stop there.

Flammable nylon webbing on the scaffolding surrounding the apartment building, part of a facelift, accelerated the spread of the fire. Why did the contractor not use the fire retardant webbing stipulated by national standards? Why was the building being fitted with flammable foam insulation panels in the first place?

There is no doubting the heroics of the firefighters. Many of them gave their gas masks to victims during the search and rescue operation inside the smoke-filled building in the wake of the deadly blaze. But the overall co-ordination of Monday's firefighting mission is under harsh scrutiny. Shanghai has more than 400 skyscrapers that are at least 100 metres tall, so why do its firefighters have only one aerial ladder that can reach above 90 metres?

Why did the command chain work inefficiently in isolating the scaffolding from the building as much as possible in the initial stage of the mission? The chimney effect created by the space between the scaffolding and the building's fabric contributed to the blaze's rapid upward movement, which forced rescuers to abort a mission to rescue victims from the roof by helicopter.

Above all, are Shanghai firefighters sufficiently trained?

The questions being asked go beyond the issue of emergency preparedness. Investigators appointed by the central government say multiple subcontracting of construction work is one of the reasons to blame for lax on-site work safety rules. But more suspicious is the absence of any official record showing how Shanghai Jiayi, the main contractor, won the public bid for the 30 million yuan (HK$35 million) project. Mainlanders tend to smell corruption and conspiracy in tragedies, thanks to their experience with an increasingly greedy and arrogant bureaucracy.

Some of the questions will be answered. Others may not.

On top of the 58 dead and 126 injured, 56 people who either lived in the building or were visiting at the time of the fire are missing.

'My mother told me she was going to play mahjong with friends [living in that building] and never came back,' one weeping woman told Shanghai television.

The Shanghai government has felt the wave of confusion, grief and anger. A high-level investigation began hours after the blaze, officials have criss-crossed the city tallying fire hazards and a number of people believed responsible for the blaze have been detained.

But that is not enough.

They don't have to look far for an example to follow in tackling and learning from such catastrophes.

Fourteen years ago, welders in Hong Kong triggered a similar disaster, which cost 41 lives at the 16-storey Garley Building in Jordan.

As a result, legislators passed revised fire safety standards for all premises in Hong Kong. Subsidies were granted to help owners improve enforcement and upgrade infrastructure. Since then there has not been a year in which more than 10 people have died in fires.