Grieving Yuen Long father says illegal structures blocked firefighters' access

Neighbours' encroachment on road stopped fire engine reaching NT house to save two young boys. Spare others such tragedy, father urges

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 5:56am

A father whose two young sons died in a New Territories fire last year is convinced their lives could have been saved if emergency vehicles had had proper access to their village house.

Simon Watkiss is calling attention to the problem in the hope that action can be taken so others' lives can be spared.

"I just don't want this to happen to anyone else," he said. "If you look around this area, you'll see that there's just no proper access to any of the properties. It's the same over most of the New Territories."

The government embarked on a large-scale crackdown on illegal structures late last year, handing out warnings and demolition orders to homeowners with illegal additions.

But some rural leaders have resisted the government action, even calling for a blanket amnesty in New Territories villages.

Although emergency vehicle access (EVA) is a requirement for all residential areas in the city, it is largely ignored in the New Territories, where homeowners often make unauthorised alterations. As a result, illegal walls, parking spaces and other structures often encroach into the streets.

Watkiss believes such structures cost his two young sons their lives. Elliot Watkiss, eight, and his brother Frankie, seven, died in the family's house in Wing Hing Wai, Yuen Long, in October, after a fire broke out while they were asleep.

Watkiss, 52, said neither the fire engine nor the ambulance could get to his house because the walls of neighbouring houses encroach into the road. A large arch also blocked the fire engine's access to the house.

As fire engulfed the house, Watkiss and his wife Candy, 44, a teacher, were trapped in their room while the two children and their Indonesian helper, 35, were trapped in a bedroom upstairs.

Watkiss said that had the fire engine's access to the house not been obstructed, its ladder could have been used to rescue his children and the helper, who were shouting for help from a window upstairs. Instead, firefighters had to break down the front door and fight their way up two floors through the blaze to reach them.

It took about 20 minutes for firefighters to reach the boys, by which time they had suffocated, he said. The helper survived by leaning out of a window.

Watkiss said he was not faulting the emergency services.

Fire Services Officers Association chairman Donny Mak Kam-fai said illegal structures in New Territories villages were a hazard that emergencies services had to contend with. "We try to work around them, but it doesn't make our job easier," Mak said.

The Lands Department said permission was granted for seven houses to be built in the residential area in 1979 and 1980. As approval was granted before fire updated safety requirements for New Territories houses were introduced in 2006, the development did not require its own EVA.

"Whether a New Territories village has an EVA depends on a factors such as the availability of land for EVA construction and the village location," a department spokeswoman said.

Some villages in lower density areas, such as Mui Wo on Lantau, have modern EVAs wide enough for full-sized fire trucks. The roads are closed to private vehicles and are patrolled by police.

The Watkiss home blaze is thought to have been caused by faulty wiring in an air conditioner. An inquest into the fire is under way.

Briton Watkiss, an actor, has appeared in local films, television series and commercials. His wife teaches at the WF Joseph Lee Primary School in Tin Shui Wai, which the boys attended.