This time, let’s heed the lessons of a fire that claimed two lives
All too often, we brush aside calls for tighter safety rules; this time the public expects action, not mere words
The Ngau Tau Kok blaze was finally extinguished after raging for 108 hours. But that does not lessen the grief we feel for the two firemen – Thomas Cheung and Samuel Hui Chi-kit – who died in the line of duty battling one of the city’s longest-running infernos. Our gratitude also goes to their colleagues, who worked tirelessly for days to put out the fire.
Condolences and tributes aside, it is important that we look into the underlying issues and prevent a recurrence. A government task force is to investigate the incident and decide the way forward on the use of industrial buildings to house storage facilities.
There are those who have already jumped to conclusions. As frontline firemen were still battling the blaze last week, officials were embroiled in a storm as some questioned the strategies used to bring the fire under control. Emotions were bound to run high but they cannot override the professional judgment of those well trained to deal with such situations.
The blaze inside a mini-storage facility was the first of its kind. Such sites are increasingly popular among households in need of extra storage space. But little was known about what was kept inside the hundreds of locked partitions in the multi-storey, maze-like structure that lacked fire safety installations. The fire was only put out after each cubicle had been forcibly opened.
Adding to the risks is the lack of statutory oversight over such facilities. Even though lease contracts may expressly ban the storage of dangerous goods, there is no requirement for a declaration of what goods are stored. The discovery of compressed gases and inflammable materials on different floors inside the gutted building underlines the potential fire hazards of such storage houses. The task force should consider tighter rules, including the option of licensing.
The lack of modern fire-safety installations in old industrial buildings has long been an issue. We were reminded of the danger when an intense blaze in Cheung Sha Wan claimed the life of a fireman in 2010. Regrettably, officials just sat on the promise of a review without action over the past six years. Meanwhile, the hazards in these buildings grow as mini-storage and other such businesses mushroom under the new policy to make better use of underutilised industrial blocks across the city. With every tragedy, there are lessons to be learned. Sadly, we seem to ignore calls for tighter safety rules. Only by learning from mistakes can tragedies be avoided.