Chaotic New Territories villages a recipe for tragedy, Zimmerman says

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 5:00am

Pok Fu Lam district councillor Paul Zimmerman says he was "sickened" by the recent deaths of two children in a fire that could have been avoided if the authorities had taken the proper safety measures.

Elliot Watkiss, eight, and his brother Frankie, seven, died in their home in Wing Hing Wai, Yuen Long, in October after a fire broke out while they were asleep. The boys' father Simon Watkiss last week told the Sunday Morning Post that his sons' lives would have been saved if emergency vehicles had had proper access to the family's village home.

Watkiss, 52, said the lack of emergency vehicle access (EVA) to their home meant that neither a fire engine nor an ambulance could get to his house because the walls of their neighbours' houses encroached into the road.

It took about 20 minutes for firefighters to reach the boys by breaking down the front door and fighting their way up two storeys through the blaze, by which time the children had suffocated.

Zimmerman said that as chief executive of the non-profit organisation Designing Hong Kong, he regularly wrote to the Director of Lands, the Ombudsman and Town Planning Board, predicting that death was only a matter of time under the New Territories' small-house policy.

"I expected [the first deaths] to be from fights among adults [over land], not the death of two young boys in a fire. As the father of a young daughter and two sons, Simon's story has been sickening to read about," said Zimmerman. "The biggest problem is that the villages lack layout plans, standard roads and parking facilities."

And the situation has recently been aggravated as Heung Yee Kuk, the powerful rural body that represents villagers, successfully negotiated for a reduction of the EVA requirement to maximise the number of village houses that can be built on the remaining available land.

"They argued that an 80-storey building in town didn't need an EVA so why don't we just fit sprinkler systems into these village houses too," Zimmerman said. "But it's obvious from this tragic case that you still need a fire engine that can get right up to the house to save lives. You don't solve this with a sprinkler when the kids could have been gotten out of the room by getting a ladder to their window."

Zimmerman said that rather than to report illegal structures to the police, village residents kept silent to protect their property and family. "The public does not hear about this until there are fatalities," he said.