'Give me back my daughter'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 December, 2011, 12:00am

Mrs Yip, a middle-aged restaurant worker, returned from her nightshift at 5am yesterday to see her home in Fa Yuen Street engulfed in flames. Inside, somewhere, was her 24-year-old daughter.

Towering flames engulfed the market stalls on both sides of the street, sending up choking black clouds that made it difficult to breathe and impossible to see what was happening.

For the next seven hours she waited outside as firemen battled the flames and carried out the injured on stretchers, amid cries calling out above the flames and smoke as people fled their apartments for safety, some up to the roof and others waiting in their flats.

Yip waited with other family and friends of people trapped by the fire that besieged 188-198 Fa Yuen Street. Some neighbours said they had seen her, but they could not be sure.

At about 12.30pm, Yip received a phone call and was told her daughter, Chen Xianxian, who had come from Hainan Island for a visit, was among the dead. She burst into tears, unable to control her sobs.

She grabbed the hand of her daughter's friend, who had managed to escape, pleading and shouting 'give back my daughter to me'.

Yip's husband said Chen had sealed her fate when she ran out of the fourth-floor flat with her female friend at 192 Fa Yuen Street and chose to run downstairs. 'She ran downstairs but her friend escaped to the roof and survived.'

With the media crowding around her, Yip was escorted to an ambulance, still sobbing uncontrollably and unable to state her full name. Police later confirmed her daughter as one of the dead.

Among the scores of survivors now made homeless by the fire was Samie Ullah, an asylum seeker from Pakistan, who stayed in his partitioned room on the eighth floor of 192 Fa Yuen Street. A friend, whom he named as Syed Bashrat Shah, also an asylum seeker from Pakistan, ran out and disappeared.

At 6pm, the Hospital Authority said they had been able to identify only three of the nine dead, as the remaining six were not carrying identification documents or their bodies were too badly burned.

Waiting for news of his friend at the scene, Ullah, 30, who has been in Hong Kong for about three years, said he and his friend were watching a film when the fire broke out.

'The electricity suddenly went out,' said Ullah, his face still blackened. 'Dense smoke poured into our room when we opened the door to check. It was very dark outside. I couldn't go out. But my friend ran out and a Chinese man came into my room.

'Smoke entered the room through the door gap. I covered my nose with a towel.'

Firemen broke into the room and rescued the two men about an hour later. Had they taken much longer, he would not have survived, Ullah said.

Another survivor was Ullah's friend, Afzal Muhammad, 32, who was awakened in his rooftop flat by people shouting for help.

'Smoke poured into my flat when I opened the door,' the barefooted Pakistani said at the scene. 'I then closed the door and stuffed towels in the door gap.

'I broke a window and climbed out. Somebody held my hand and pulled me out.' He covered his nose and mouth with a wet towel while waiting for help together with nine neighbours. He said one of the neighbours who escaped to the roof from a lower floor had suffered burns to both arms.

'As there was dense smoke on one side, we moved to the other side of the roof,' he said.

Firemen rescued them about an hour later, but Muhammad said he was very scared and afraid he might have been killed in the blaze.

Five hours after the first firemen arrived, the scene was a mess. There were people everywhere - firemen walking out with blackened suits while new officers ran into the smoke. Large sections were roped off and the streets were lined with ambulances, fire trucks and police cars.

In the little sitting-out area at the northern end of Fa Yuen Street, despair hung over the refugees from the fire. Social workers ushered residents to the emergency tables to get their details for follow-up. Some former residents, now homeless, had their head in their hands, with many just speechless and overwhelmed by what had happened. Others just sat around quietly, with tears in their eyes.

'My cousin - he's not here any more, he's gone,' said a woman who gave her name only Miss Ho, standing still and staring towards the street. She said her 50-year-old cousin, Choi Wai-ming, was among the dead.

'His family called his mobile phone, and a policeman picked it up,' she said with her eyes, filling up with tears. 'He told us he's dead.'

She said police were able to identify Choi because he was carrying his identity card. Police later confirmed that Choi was among the dead. Choi's wife was still missing.

Another survivor, who lived on the fifth floor of the eight-storey building at 196 Fa Yuen Street, said he had been awakened by one of his neighbours banging on his door. He lived in one of the partitioned rooms in the fifth-floor flat.

Dense smoke filled the staircase when he ran out of the flat with his neighbours, who turned to the roof when they were turned back by dense smoke filling the stairways.

'I took off my vest, wetted it and used it to cover my mouth and nose. One of my neighbours tore his underwear apart and shared with others.'

He recalled the horror as the words 'help' and 'fire' echoed down Fa Yuen Street as they waited for help.

Firefighters used a hydraulic platform and brought them to ground level about two hours later.

A restaurant worker, surnamed Wong, who lived alone on the fifth floor, said she and her nine neighbours were trapped on the roof for about two hours before being rescued by firemen.

'Due to thick smoke, we had to lie face down on the floor and cover our mouths and noses with wet towels,' she said.

While waiting for help, she heard a man from an adjacent building screaming for help.

'He shouted saying that his wife had suffered burns and they were trapped with their baby,' she said

Wong was rescued by firemen at about 7am, but she did not know what had happened to the man's family.

However, a woman visiting Kwong Wah Hospital in Yau Ma Tei last night said she was the grandmother of the boy, whom she identified by his surname, Lee.

She said the boy would be a year old today and that he was being treated in Kwong Wah Hospital for smoke inhalation. The infant, who lived on the eighth floor of one of the tenement blocks in Fa Yuen Street with his parents and a domestic helper, escaped with his mother and the maid, she said.

'His mother carried him to run downstairs with their maid. When reaching the third floor, they had to retreat because of dense smoke,' she said. 'They fled to the roof from where they climbed on to the roof of an adjacent block. They thought they were going to die.'

Face and hands blackened by smoke, the baby was found to be in a stable condition when admitted to the hospital. His mother and maid were also in stable condition.

The mother of 24-year-old Tse Kai-wang, one of three men admitted to Kwong Wah Hospital's intensive care unit last night, said her son's girlfriend, who lived with him, was still missing.

She said she and her husband were both security guards working a nightshift, and were not at home when fire broke out.

'My son and his girlfriend ran for life together. They went to the rooftop, but it was too crowded. His girlfriend was pushed down the staircase. It was then they were separated. We called her but could not find her all day,' she said.


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