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  • Dec 27, 2014
  • Updated: 4:35am
NewsHong Kong

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.


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This article is now closed to comments

Although this is a tragic event, the headline writers have twisted this into an item about illegal structures. If you read the story fully, firefighters access depend on various factors like available land. Original villages were built before vehicles invented, and were originally organized along narrow paths, most likely for village security.
The illegal structures, or more properly non-authorised structures, that the government focuses on, is mainly about additional stories, enclosed balconies. Most likely most 'illegal structures' do not affect safety. Authorization for a legal village house does not focus on access for EVA so the walls blocking access may still be allowed. EVA is about proper planning, not illegal structures.
Although we should encourage vehicular access, I fear that these would be filled with illegal cars in the same way people block up emergency fire escapes.
Unfortunately villages were originally built with narrow paths. Unless we demolish houses, it would be hard to correct this. Maybe the headline writer should have focussed on smoke detectors - I have never seen one in other peoples apartments and I believe I am one of the few to have one installed in my home. In Europe and elsewhere, there is a much heightened awareless of installing fire detectors at home - maybe this is what the journalist should focus on.
I commend Mr Watkiss for speaking out and trying to ensure this never happens again. To turn this tragedy into something positive takes true courage and character. I would love to believe that the relevant government departments that could improve the situation have even a fraction of his courage.
Because of this disaster, fire and electrical safety is now a much higher priority in our home. I hope that everyone reading this will consider their level of fire safety and emergency preparation, especially those of you with children.
I hope he can sue the owners of the houses with the illegal structures for negligent homicide.
A terrible, terrible tragedy. To anyone in the market for a new residence especially in the 'wild west' we call village houses in the NT, determine that the facility has clear and open means of escape to the outside away from the building (no blocked exits), satisfactory EVA provisions (hire a consultant if you are not sure), install smoke detectors and check electrical installations. I have completely redone the electrical in the 4 flats I have owned in HK and was surprised to see so many deficiencies even in what appeared to be well maintained homes. Hong Kong has a very capable and professional Fire Services Dept but the first line of defense is to make sure the places we occupy are safe.
Not sure why you call this the 'wild west'. You obviously don't live in a tenement in Sham Shui Po. And maybe people shouldn't live in Lamma as access for all sorts is harder (eg hospitals).
However agree with smoke detectors (and I am going to buying a small fire extinguishers placed in my car parked outside now).
I can't remember a single government campaign on this, while they have other stupid campaigns (registering your 'illegal structure', pig farms/avian flue etc).


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