Hundreds remember Shanghai blaze dead

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 November, 2011, 12:00am

Hundreds of relatives of the 58 people who died in a massive apartment block fire in Shanghai a year ago gathered at the scene of the blaze yesterday to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy.

Huddled behind a police cordon, they bowed at makeshift altars, lighting incense and laying white chrysanthemums.

A number stuck photographs of their lost loved ones or letters to the dead to the sheet-metal hoarding encircling the charred ruins, untouched since the accident.

The fire - in which 71 people were also injured - engulfed almost the entire 28-storey building in minutes after welders set alight flammable insulation material being retrofitted to the tower's exterior. Mourners started to gather below the charred building at lunchtime, and by 2pm the crowd had grown to several hundred, with a swelling number of onlookers peering over from surrounding streets. More people joined as dusk fell and, under the scrutiny of hundreds of uniformed and plain-clothes police, the throng lit candles.

The scale of the fire stunned the city, particularly as it came two weeks after the end of the six-month-long World Expo, intended to show off Shanghai as the mainland's most advanced and sophisticated metropolis.

The city's fire department came under intense criticism at the time because it took almost an hour for any meaningful response and it was late in the night before firefighters began to gain control of the blaze.

Tens of thousands of residents packed the streets on the seventh day after the tragedy in a rare example of mass public grief and what was for many a silent protest against the government nepotism and graft that was widely thought to have contributed to the fire.

In August, 26 people were jailed on corruption charges in connection with the accident, including several high-ranking officials in the Jingan district government, which was responsible for the renovation work that caused the fire.

As testament to the political sensitivity of the incident, the anniversary was completely ignored by official newspapers in Shanghai yesterday.

There was a heavy police presence at the site, with officers stopping reporters to check their credentials.

Relatives - many understood to be taking the local government to court in compensation disputes - declined to speak to reporters and indicated they were intimidated by the authorities' watchful gaze.

Yuan Yulai, a lawyer based in Ningbo who is representing several families, also refused to comment to non-mainland media.

On his Sina Weibo microblog he hinted that he had been told to keep quiet by the authorities.

'Is there any media that didn't get a banning order? I got one too,' Yuan posted yesterday afternoon.

Overseas media were initially allowed access to the mourners' cordoned-off zone, but were instructed to leave shortly after 2.30pm.

44.8m yuan

The amount, in yuan. donated to help victims of the fire. In September just 4.2 million yuan had been given to people affected