Report to blame faulty wiring, and not arson, for Fa Yuen Street fire

The report from a 12-month probe into last year's Fa Yuen Street fire that killed nine also blames illegal subdivided flats for the deaths

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 3:39am

A connection problem with an electric cable used at a hawker's stall has been identified as the only possible cause of a Mong Kok inferno in November last year that killed nine people and injured 34.

Investigators into the city's deadliest fire in 15 years are expected to point to faulty wiring, instead of arson, as the trigger for the tragedy in the Fa Yuen Street open-air market.

The danger was compounded by lack of access to rear staircases in two buildings behind the market because flats had been subdivided, the report will highlight.

A 12-month police investigation showed a connection problem in the cable caused it to burst into flames, igniting the booth, a government source said.

The flames, fanned by wind, spread rapidly to other booths and to the mezzanine-floor flats of the buildings through canvas awnings on top of the stalls, he said.

Professor Ho Siu-lau, head of Polytechnic University's electrical engineering department who was brought in by the police as an independent expert to help the investigation, agreed with this conclusion, the source said.

"The cable's connection problem will be the only possible cause to be listed in the full report to be submitted to the Coroner's Court next week," the source said. He did not specify what the connection problem was.

Although arson could not be completely ruled out, he said "the report will highlight that the fire was highly unlikely to have been an arson attack".

Arson was initially suspected because firefighters found two rows of stalls ablaze when they arrived but could not establish a natural cause of ignition.

It is understood that the accident could have been avoided had a switchboard been turned off to cut electricity to the stall.

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the tragedy, which highlighted safety issues surrounding hawker stalls and the dangers of subdivided flats.

The fire started in the early hours of November 30 inside the stall, which sold children's clothes near the exit of a front staircase shared by two adjoining eight-storey buildings at 192 and 194 Fa Yuen Street. At least seven flats had their rear escape routes blocked by illegal subdivisions on their storeys that created self-contained rooms.

"As most of the rooms did not have any windows, some victims might not have heard shouts of fire from outside," a police officer said. "So they might have failed to flee in time."

The nine victims had to escape through the front, but ran into dense fumes. Post-mortem results showed the nine, all found in the front staircase, died from suffocation.

The report will identify the canvas awnings and two doors separating the mezzanine-floor flats from the front staircase as among the main factors for the flames spreading so rapidly. The awnings led the fire into the buildings, the officer said.

"The two doors burned away quickly, allowing dense smoke [from the flats] to enter the front staircase," he said.

The report will include statements from hundreds of people, including survivors and rescuers, and recommendations to improve fire safety in old buildings.