Coroner in To Kwa Wan fire inquest issues urgent call to prevent deathtraps

Coroner tells officials to take the initiative to avoid another deadly blaze as herules four deaths in 2011 To Kwa Wan fire were accidental

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 5:21am

A coroner has urged government officials to strengthen fire safety measures at walk-up buildings after returning a verdict of accidental death on all four victims of a 2011 blaze in To Kwa Wan.

Coroner Michael Chan Pik-kiu yesterday said various government offices, including the Buildings Department and the Fire Services Department, should "take the initiative" to speed up simple improvement works, rather than wait for building owners to carry them out.

He said the government could implement preventive measures, like installing alarms in stairwells, at costs that "will not be very high".

It might take as long as five years for landlords and tenants to sort out the issues on their own - time in which another deadly fire could occur, said Chan. "Residents may refuse to chip in, or even oppose fire prevention measures," he said.

Four people were killed and 19 injured in the fire at 111-113 Ma Tau Wai Road on June 15, 2011. The blaze claimed the lives of Summer Tse Yan-yee, 18; Huang Jianhuan, 37, and her sons Lai Chun-hin, six, and Lai Chun-tak, 16 months.

The court heard the fire started at 3am in a ground-floor storeroom in which plastic billboards, flammable oil, unused wiring and newspapers were kept.

The court accepted expert opinions from the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department and Professor Ho Siu-lau, of Polytechnic University's electrical engineering department, which stated the blaze was not caused by an electrical fault. The court also ruled out arson.

The coroner said burning cigarettes and joss papers might have sparked the fire.

Outside court, Summer Tse's father Tse Chor-suen and the Lai boys' father Lai Hok-man, the family's sole survivor, declined to comment on the ruling.

The court earlier heard the Fire Services Department had concluded the cause of the fire was "unknown". Chan suggested it allow third parties to conduct its investigations, after listing several other fires for which the firefighters failed to find a cause. The department's divisional officer Tsang Wai-ming told the coroner outsourcing was not workable as outsiders lacked the firefighting experience to do the work.

The department said its conclusion met international fire investigation standards as it could not narrow down the cause to one possibility.

The Buildings Department said it had inspected 485 buildings to rectify irregularities. In April, the buildings and fire services departments also launched a joint operation to inspect the common means of escapes in about 6,500 old-style buildings.