Senior fireman's death was accident, jury finds

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2011, 12:00am

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A senior fireman sent to tackle a blaze at a Cheung Sha Wan factory in March last year died by accident, an inquest ruled yesterday.

A jury of five returned the unanimous verdict after about 11/2 hours of deliberation at the Coroner's Court. They said Yeung Chun-kit, 47, died when extreme conditions caused him to have a heart attack. The ruling ended a seven-day inquest.

The Fire Services Department Staffs General Association said it agreed with the verdict.

The fire broke out on March 8, 2010, at a unit used by Everprise Knitters at Lai Cheong Factory Building. Initially classified a first alarm, the severity of the blaze was later upgraded to a third, then a fourth alarm.

Coroner Michael Chan Pik-kiu had told the jury to try to decide whether it was more likely that Yeung died by natural causes or accident, failing which they could consider an open verdict.

The court heard that a staff member at the department's communication centre deleted a message raising the first alarm to a third, which would have automatically led to the dispatch of more assistance. The staff member said there were often many messages on the computer system.

The court also heard that Yeung had been exempted from fitness tests for several years.

The court was told that several firemen tackling the blaze failed to remove keys that activate their personal alarms or name tags. According to their training, they were to leave these items with a fireman outside the building before going in to fight a fire, in part to make it clear how many firefighters were inside. The alarm, which a firefighter wears into the site of a blaze, sounds when its wearer does not move for a certain amount of time so that they can be located with greater ease.

In conclusion, the jury made three suggestions: the department's communication centre should not handle general messages; there should be no exemption from the physical ability test; and firemen must follow the required procedures at the entrance to the scene of a blaze.

Tse Sau-lung, vice-chairman of the staff association, said the organisation agreed with the suggestions on the communication centre and entry procedures. 'Sometimes, because of the urgency of the situation, the procedure might not be followed 100 per cent. We need to assess how to deal with this issue,' he said

However, he said the association had to further consider the suggestion regarding the physicals.

Lee Chung-wing, chairman of the Hong Kong Fire Service Control Staffs Union, also welcomed the suggestion regarding the communication centre, but said it might prove difficult to implement. He urged greater public awareness, saying people with non-urgent inquiries should use other resources to look for answers, including the internet.

The dead fireman's brothers, Yeung Chun-yin and Yeung Chun-chor, and his widow, May Ngan Yuk-mei, left the court building without comment after the verdict. The coroner offered his condolences to the family members in attendance.

The court had heard that Everprise had kept yarn and machinery at the unit where the fire broke out, and that two staff members were known to be regular smokers.

A Fire Services Department report submitted to the court was inconclusive about the cause of the blaze.