Deadly blaze raises questions about mental health support in Hong Kong, as police explore arson and murder theories

Four people die in blaze including family of three and neighbour with suspected mental problems who is thought to have started the fire

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 July, 2016, 10:37am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2016, 5:41pm

Hong Kong must address its chronic shortage of mental health doctors or face a repeat of a ­tragedy early on Saturday in which a whole family was wiped out when fire ripped through their public housing flat, according to medical campaigners.

A three-year-old girl and her mother perished inside their 13th-floor Kennedy Town home and the girl’s father died in a fall as he tried to flee the flames by climbing out of the burning flat naked as the fire raged at about1.30am

The fourth victim of the fire was a 63-year-old male neighbour, who police believe suffered from mental problems and is suspected to have set fire to the front door of the family’s unit. His burned body was found behind the door of his own flat, opposite the family’s.

Police said one focus of the ­investigation would be reports that there had been arguments between the family and the man.

A police source said one of the theories investigators were looking at involved the neighbour, Hui Wai-Chung, possibly starting the fire and burning himself or setting himself alight.

Mental health workers said there had been insufficient follow-up on cases and patients in a serious condition were not getting treatment in hospitals, due to a shortage of manpower and beds.

“The problem has never been relieved and only become more severe,” said Cheung Kin-fai, chairman of non-governmental group Rehabilitation Alliance Hong Kong.

“How much more serious does the issue need to become for the government to be willing to do something?”

Fire chiefs said traces of accelerant were found at the entrance of both charred flats in Lung Wah Street, Kennedy Town, suggesting the fire was started deliberately.

Both police and the Fire Services Department have launched investigations.

Police were looking into the possibility of arson and murder, said superintendent Wan Siu-hung of the Hong Kong Island regional headquarters crime squad.

The charred bodies of the 26-year-old woman, Wu Qianxin, and her daughter, Huang Yilin, were found in the living room of their flat, while Hui was found dead behind the front door of the opposite flat.

Wan said the mother and daughter, who both died of severe burns, had just arrived from the mainland for a family reunion. They held one-way permits.

He said the husband, 26-year-old Huang Zhiqiang, died when he fell and hit the fourth-floor podium. The family was living with Huang’s parents and younger brother, Wan said, but the other three were not home due to work or illness when the fire broke out.

Wan added that Hui, who lived alone, also died of severe burns. He said Hui was assigned a social worker and had made many complaints to police on issues such as noise and arguments since he moved into the flat in August 2013.

Hong Kong is short of at least 700 psychiatrists, according to World Health Organisation standards, which state that there should be one psychiatrist for every 10,000 residents.

Cheung said many patients in a serious condition who should have been sent to hospital were left fending for themselves ­because there were not enough beds. He added that some of them might be unwilling to seek help either because of the stigma society attached to them, or because they found it difficult spending working hours seeing doctors.

Cheung said it was therefore necessary to have clinical services for them at night and during holidays. But the government had been unwilling to provide such support, he said.

Dr Chan Lap-kei, a spokesman for the Hong Kong College of Psychiatrists, said a psychiatrist usually needed to handle 30 to 40 cases within a three-hour shift every day in public hospitals, meaning only five minutes could be spent with each patient.

He added that a community-based nurse had to handle more than 50 cases at one time.

Chan said every psychiatrist should be able to spend 30 to 45 minutes on each patient and each nurse should not handle more than 20 cases at a time – in line with standards in Western countries such as Britain.

A total of 150 people were evacuated from the building and the blaze was largely put out shortly before 4am.

The tragedy follows the death of two firefighters last month in a blaze in a Ngau Tau Kok industrial building which sparked a major re-evaluation of fire safety across the city.