4 die in suspicious blaze at tenement
Clifford Lo, Joyce Ng and Simpson Cheung
A pregnant woman, her two sons aged one and six, and a teenage girl were killed yesterday as a suspicious fire ripped through their 54-year-old tenement building.
The woman's husband, Lai Hok-man, 55, was fighting for his life in hospital - one of 19 people injured or overcome by smoke in the blaze in Ma Tau Wai. Residents complained of locked emergency exits and obstructed escape routes.
The family of four apparently separated after they ran out of their rented cubicle in a fourth-floor flat in the eight-storey building in Ma Tau Wai Road.
Huang Yan-huan, 37, was found dead inside a second-floor flat, the body of her one-year-old son in her arms, a police officer said. 'The body of her elder son was found on a staircase between the second and third floors,' the officer said. 'Serious burns were found on their bodies.'
Her husband was found with serious injuries in an upper-floor flat, police said. He was in critical condition last night in Queen Elizabeth Hospital's intensive care unit.
Tse Yan-yee, 18, was found unconscious on a staircase between the fourth and fifth floors. She was later declared dead in Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Survivors complained that rear exits on individual floors of the eight-storey building were blocked following renovations that subdivided some flats into cubicles that were rented out.
The Institute of Surveyors said the incident demonstrated the safety threat of subdivided flats, which often created problematic layouts. In this case, the building shared front and rear staircases with an adjacent block. 'The original building design is safe but the subdivision of flats, which puts the rear exit in only one of the partitions of the floor, is dangerous,' said Vincent Ho Kui-yip, an institute spokesman.
The building is two blocks from a five-storey building that collapsed last year, killing four people.
District councillors said the fatal fire highlighted lapses in building management in what is a rundown area of Kowloon where property owners are waiting for flats to be bought for redevelopment and are unwilling to spend on maintenance. The Fire Services Department said yesterday's blaze was suspicious as it had spread abnormally. It set up a taskforce to find out why the fire spread so quickly. Detectives are investigating whether it was arson.
The blaze broke out around 3am in a ground-floor shop and quickly blocked the front escape route, trapping residents inside.
One resident, his wife and eight-year-old daughter had to climb out of a window of their fourth-floor flat to escape because the front staircase was filled with smoke and the fourth-floor rear exit was blocked, the man said. 'When I opened the door, the staircase was filled with black smoke and I could not find a way to escape,' he said. The barefoot family returned to the flat and climbed out of a window. They edged down to the second-floor canopy before firemen brought them to ground level.
Seventeen fire engines and three ambulances were sent to the scene. With about 100 firefighters battling the blaze, it was put out at 5.29am.
Besides Lai, three of the injured remained in hospital, with two in stable and one in serious condition. The others were released after treatment.