Killer blaze highlights the dangers of divided flats

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 June, 2011, 12:00am


The blaze in Ma Tau Wai that killed four yesterday broke out in an area that is home to old, dilapidated buildings and near to where a tenement two blocks away collapsed and took four lives in January last year.

While the earlier tragedy was caused by alterations being made to the building, yesterday's incident highlighted the safety threat of sub-divided flats, which are commonplace in old buildings in the area, providing cheap accommodation for young single people and new immigrant families.

Some residents who managed to escape said a few flats at 111 and 113 Ma Tau Wai Road, built in 1957, had been partitioned into rental cubicles in a manner that excluded a rear exit from some of them.

'This kind of layout is very common in old buildings. The fire has exposed the long-existing threat of partitions,' said Vincent Ho Kui-yip, a spokesman for the Institute of Surveyors.

'In theory, the area near the rear exit should have been left as common space,' Ho said. 'But property owners usually want to earn more rent and end up dividing a flat into four, five or even six cubicles, even when there is enough space for only three.'

Lam Chun-man, former director of fire services, now a fire engineer, said subdivided flats often fell short of fire safety standards because the common corridor was too narrow, the doors were too thin to resist fire for long, and some partitions lacked windows. The additional doors for each cubicle could become obstacles when people ran for their lives in times of fire, he said.

The government says partitioning flats is not necessarily illegal. But there is a risk that partition walls and additional water pipes will make the building overloaded or cause water seepage.

It is studying measures to regulate subdivided flats, such as requiring qualified contractors to do the work.

Ho said subdivided flats should be controlled by a licensing system like the one for guest houses. Owners should be forced to ensure that all the rooms were well lit and ventilated and that the layout complied with fire safety regulations. They should also submit a layout plan to officials for records. The rear exit must be left within the common area.

Starry Lee Wai-king, Kowloon City district councillor from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said the area was dotted with old buildings with a similar design and that many lacked a security guard to take care of building management and maintenance.

After the building collapse at 45 Ma Tau Wai Road, the Urban Renewal Authority announced redevelopment of the site and private developers concentrated on buying up flats in the area. The prospect of redevelopment discouraged owners from spending money to repair their buildings, Lee said.