Three Hong Kong firefighters injured saving woman from temple furnace
Union president commends colleagues’ bravery in entering ‘barbecue grill’
Three Hong Kong firefighters were injured when saving a woman who was believed to have thrown herself into a furnace in a Taoist temple on Sunday.
This was the first time the city’s firefighters carried out a rescue involving the burning structure, raising doubts as to whether existing equipment and guidelines were adequate for such situations.
A fire services union president commended his colleagues for their bravery and said the furnace was “like a barbecue grill”.
Five fire trucks and five ambulances carrying 54 firefighters and medics arrived at the Yuen Yuen Institute in Tsuen Wan at 10.24am, four minutes after the alert went out.
A 58-year-old woman was extracted from the 2.5-metre deep furnace by four firefighters within three minutes. She was comatose when she was taken to Princess Margaret Hospital.
Three of the four firefighters sustained burns to their legs and were sent to Yan Chai Hospital. As of Sunday afternoon, two had already been discharged.
The other firefighter – the first to enter the furnace – was transferred to Kwong Wah Hospital and still receiving treatment. A Fire Services Department spokeswoman said he had suffered second-degree burns to 7 per cent of his thighs and lower legs, and was in stable condition.
Tsuen Wan police district assistant commander Chan Hoi-kong said the woman was believed to have attempted suicide.
He explained that the woman arrived at the temple alone without an oblation. He said the furnace and the metre-high fence surrounding it were extraordinarily hot due to ongoing incineration and the direct sunlight.
Police investigators contacted the woman’s younger brother, who said she had been suffering emotional problems.
“This is the first time we have seen a case like this,” said Leung Kwok-chu, a fire services commander with the New Territories command.
Leung said the unextinguished ashes were as thick as 1.5 metres and as hot as between 400 and 600 degrees Celsius. The firefighters had to stand in the ashes to pull the woman out.
The four were dressed in full protective suits that can guarantee protection from 1,000 degrees Celsius for at most eight seconds. They were also supported by a watering fire hose.
Even so, three of the four said they felt burning pain in their legs as the rescue mission was completed.
Leung, however, denied that the firefighters’ suits were inadequate.
“The trouser legs were firmly wrapped and fixed with tape so the ashes couldn’t swarm in easily,” he said, adding that a subsequent inspection of the gear and equipment found no damage.
But Jerry Nip Yuen-fung, president of the Fire Services Department Staffs General Association, said the protective clothing commonly known as “gold suits” had been designed to protect firefighters from radiant heat. For this reason, he said, their effectiveness might not be the same against direct heat.
“It was like putting them in a barbecue grill,” he said of the firefighters’ circumstances. “The direct heat could not be resisted by any protective suit now available on the market.”
Similar complaints that gold suits were not breathable arose last year after a No 4 alarm fire at Amoycan Industrial Centre in Ngau Tau Kok claimed the lives of two firefighters. Critics said the suit design made firefighters more susceptible to heat exhaustion.