Few lessons learned from Shanghai blaze disaster

Two years on from inferno that claimed at least 58 lives, victims and their families still seek answers while fire safety seems a low priority

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 12:47pm

Almost two years have passed since Shanghai's worst fire in six decades. The inferno claimed at least 58 lives, but authorities do not seem to have learned any lessons from the disaster.

Little has changed for residents of the city when it comes to fire safety. Most have never taken part in fire drills and few know much about prevention or how to escape the flames.

Meanwhile, only 40 of the 170 families who lived in the high-rise building engulfed by the blaze have signed compensation agreements with the municipal government and the authorities have refused to publish the full fire investigation report.

The 28-storey apartment building in the city's Jingan district caught fire after welders accidentally ignited flammable insulation material being retrofitted to the tower's exterior.

The authorities say the fire, which lasted about five hours, left 58 people dead and 71 injured, but there is widespread suspicion that the real toll was higher.

The fire remains a scar on Shanghai's self-proclaimed image as the mainland's most advanced and sophisticated metropolis.

Sparked by shoddy practices by unlicensed workers hired by unlicensed construction companies, the tragedy is closely linked to corruption, like many catastrophes on the mainland.

A Shanghai court has jailed 25 people linked to the disaster, including nine officials from the district's Construction and Transport Committee. Another 28 officials, including a vice-mayor, have been disciplined, Xinhua reported.

But victims and their families say the authorities' response has been inadequate. They have tried to take the municipal government, its Construction and Transport Committee and even the State Council to court, demanding that they release all the details about the fire. So far, however, only the conclusion of the investigation report has been released.

Fu Shengyan, whose mother-in-law and sister-in-law died in the fire, said the lawsuits had either been lost or not accepted by the courts. He said that's what victims' families had expected because they knew there was no independent judiciary.

"But we still go through the judicial processes, hoping the government, under pressure, can reveal a few more details, even though not the whole report," Fu said. "The truth should be shown to the public. Only in this way can similar tragedies be avoided."

Ningbo lawyer Yuan Yulai said they sued the State Council, which spearheaded the investigation, in the Beijing Higher People's Court in February, calling on it to release the whole fire investigation report, but had not received any response from the court. Yuan said they lodged another lawsuit with the Supreme People's Court in September.

Their next target will be Shanghai's municipal Firefighting Bureau, because residents blamed the high casualty toll on the slow response of firefighters.

Fu said they had not been given the chance to meet the district's new director, Zhou Ping , who took office at the beginning of this year, despite several visits to the district government's office by victims and their families.

In a letter posted online, setting out their demands for a meeting, Fu wrote: "A lot of residents, including elderly people, are still living in small hotels designated by the government and they have numerous difficulties in their daily lives."

He said residents could not accept the fact that the district's former director had been appointed deputy Communist Party boss in Xinjiang's Kashgar prefecture, within a year of the disaster, or that his former deputy had been made vice-president of a powerful government-backed property developer in Shanghai.

Han Xin, a firefighting expert from the Shanghai Institute of Disaster Prevention and Relief, said the municipal government has been installing fire alarms and extinguishers in old residential buildings in the wake of the inferno, but had done little to promote fire-safety awareness.

And it had yet to solve the shortage of fire hydrants or tackle the urban obstacles that delayed firefighters' response to the blaze.

There is unlikely to be any official recognition of the fire's second anniversary, which falls on November 15.