Lawmaker calls for better fire safety ruling for NT's small houses

Simon Watkiss, whose sons died in blaze, thanks Zimmerman for taking up village access issue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 5:02am

The father of two young boys who died in a house fire in the New Territories last year has applauded a district councillor who took the government to task on the issue of fire safety.

Simon Watkiss, who lost his sons to the October blaze in Yuen Long, was heartened by the support of Pok Fu Lam councillor Paul Zimmerman.

Zimmerman, who is also chief executive of the non-profit organisation Designing Hong Kong, said he was "sickened" by the deaths of brothers Elliot, eight, and Frankie, seven, in a fire he said could have been avoided if authorities had taken proper safety measures. He challenged both Ombudsman Alan Lai Nin and Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung to address the problem seriously.

Watkiss, 52, is adamant that his sons, who were asleep when the fire broke out, would have lived if emergency vehicles had proper access to the family's village home in Wing Hing Wai.

"I fully support Mr Zimmerman's efforts and I'm very thankful for his help. Hopefully it will stir others into action and this will never happen to another family," he said. "If it makes the deaths of my boys at least bring some positive effect, then it can only be a good thing."

Watkiss said there was a lack of emergency vehicle access because the walls of their neighbours' houses encroached on the road, so neither fire engines nor ambulances could get through to their house.

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

An inquest is in progress, though Watkiss said it could take up to a year before the findings were made public.

Meanwhile, Zimmerman sent detailed letters to the ombudsman and the secretary for justice, calling for the Coroner's Court to consider the exposure of the inhabitants of New Territories Exempted Houses to the risk of fire.

The term refers to houses built by indigenous villagers under the New Territories small-house policy and on old house plots.

Zimmerman also asked the authorities to undertake "all possible actions to halt the deterioration and improve fire safety in villages".

The Office of the Ombudsman responded, saying it was monitoring the situation.

"The government has put in place an administrative measure to require 'small house' applicants to implement fire safety alternatives for the protection of life and property," it said.

It was a reply that did not satisfy Zimmerman, who believed the government should enforce a statutory measure, not an administrative one, in these cases. He also felt that rather than "monitor" the situation, an investigation, study or review should take place.