Survivors tell inquest into Mong Kok blaze of chaotic, difficult escape
Finding an exit was almost impossible amid the thick smoke, survivors of Mong Kok blaze say
Stuart Lau and Thomas Chan
Survivors recalled the chaotic circumstances of their escape from a deadly inferno yesterday, as the inquest continued into the midnight Mong Kok blaze of 2011.
For some, the nightmare centred on the windowless main staircase in the walk-up building at 192-194 Fa Yuen Street, the Coroner's Court was told. Government lawyer Simon Tam Man-fai at one point said the staircase was "like an oven" on the night of November 30, 2011, when nine people died and 34 were injured in the fire.
Wang Jianhua, who had moved to the city one year earlier from Zhanjiang in Guangdong, said she fell unconscious after running up and down the staircase trying to escape the fire.
"I was [awakened] when a woman knocked on my door, saying [there was a] fire downstairs," Wang, a waitress, said in a voice that may be permanently coarsened by the pungent smoke she inhaled that night.
"I rushed out … without shoes on," she said, recounting the start of her terrifying escape. "I opened the door and saw many people walking downstairs; I followed … for some floors - I don't remember how many - and someone in front of me said: 'No way forward'."
The crowd headed back up the stairs, rushing to the roof, where they were choked by dense clouds of noxious black smoke. "Then I saw some people walking back down [the stairs] again," Wang said. "I followed too."
Seeing a door open to a flat on her way down, she rushed in, only to find a person sitting - or collapsed - and one or two others standing. That's the last thing she remembers; she fell unconscious at that point and was carried out of the building by firefighters. Wang spent a month in hospital before returning to work.
Chiang Yun-ming, another witness, said he went to the staircase to escape but immediately saw he could not enter its "[glowing] red and smoky" interior.
So he rushed to the balcony and jumped a long way down to an adjacent building - a drop "the height of the courtroom", he said.
Asked how bad the smoke had been, Chiang said: "I couldn't even see my hands."
A five-minute clip, shot by Matthew Stender - who lived on the fourth floor at 175 Fa Yuen Street - was shown in court yesterday. It showed the fire starting in market stalls opposite his building, and the flames quickly spreading to nearby stalls.
Meanwhile, survivor Gary Leung Ah-fu told the inquest that fire doors had been installed at the front and back doors of each unit in the building - as instructed by the Buildings Department, months before the blaze.
"The fire door at the entry to the back staircase [at my unit] was installed in September ," to replace the original wooden door, Leung said.
He managed to escape the fire by going down the building's back staircase to the first floor, where he was rescued by firefighters. Not every tenant had access to the back staircase because of the way the building was subdivided, Sergeant Leung Kwok-pun earlier told the inquest.