Hung Hom fire deaths blamed on subdivided flats blocking stairs

Lack of access to staircase for 12 flats blamed for death of pregnant woman, her two sons and a teenager in Mau Tai Wai Road blaze

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 4:12am

Escape routes blocked by illegally subdivided flats are to blame for the death of a pregnant woman, her two sons and a teenager in the Ma Tau Wai Road blaze two years ago.

The cause of the fire, however, remains a mystery.

The blaze, which raised concerns about the danger of subdivided flats in the city, started late at night inside the ground-floor shop of an eight-storey walk-up in Ma Tau Wai Road two years ago this Saturday. The inquest is due to begin on June 24.

The illegal partition walls that caused the death trap are detailed in the police report compiled after an investigation that lasted 20 months, according to a government source. The report runs to more than 100 pages, and includes statements from survivors, rescuers and experts.

The source said 12 of the 14 flats in the building had been blocked off from the rear staircase after the units had been illegally subdivided into self-contained rooms.

The source told how mother-to-be Huang Yan-huan, 37, was holding her one-year-old son, Chun-tak, while her husband Lai Hok-man was clutching their six-year-old Chun-hin as they tried to make their escape.

When they found the rear access on the third floor blocked by subdivided flats, they headed down the front staircase but were caught by fierce heat and dense smoke. "The family had to run into a second-floor flat, but also found the rear exit was blocked by subdivided cubicles," the source said.

Huang and the youngest boy hid in the second-floor flat but were killed by choking smoke, the source added.

Huang's husband tried to go to the roof with Chun-hin but lost his grip on the boy. He managed to run upstairs and was later rescued by firefighters. Chun-hin's badly burned body was found in a kneeling position on the staircase on the second floor.

The fourth victim was Summer Tse Yan-yee, an 18-year-old student. She was the first in her household to realise the danger and quickly roused her family from their beds at about 3am. She died after going ahead to try to find a way out for her family. Her body was found on the staircase on the third floor, said the source.

While nothing was discovered to suggest arson, officers have been unable to establish what set off the flames. The blaze was originally thought to have been caused by an electrical fault. But investigators were told that this was unlikely by independent expert Professor Ho Siu-lau, head of Polytechnic University's electrical engineering department.

"Investigators were told the electricity supply to the storeroom was not strong enough to ignite anything inside," the source said.

He added that there was also no evidence to suggest the fire was started deliberately.

"It is not likely anything that could have started the fire could have been shoved into the shop through the small holes in the upper part of the its metal door," he said. "CCTV footage did not show anyone acting suspiciously and chemists found no fire accelerant at the scene."

The source said most of the contents of the shop had been reduced to ashes, making it difficult to investigate the cause.

After the fire, the Buildings Department issued summonses to nine owners of units in the building after they failed to comply with orders to remove illegal structures.

A department spokeswoman said eight of them pleaded guilty and received fines ranging from HK$1,200 to HK$4,000 between October and December 2011. One summons was withdrawn because the owner died.

A police spokeswoman said the investigative report on the Ma Tau Wai Road blaze had been submitted to the Coroner's Court in February and an inquest would be held on June 24.

The fire came five months before a similar blaze at two tenement buildings in Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok, claimed the lives of nine people.