Bank fire jury calls for safety law overhaul

A CORONER'S jury yesterday called for a drastic overhaul of fire safety laws to help prevent tragedies such as the Shekkipmei bank blaze.

Returning a verdict of unlawful killing on all 12 victims of the Hongkong Bank fire, the jury called for urgent action on fire safety.

Recommendations in the Fire Services Department's special investigation report should be adopted immediately and made law, jurors told Coroner Ian Carlson.

'Existing fire orders are inadequate because they put the emphasis on security,' the jury said, urging safety precautions and training which would encourage people to act rationally in the event of fire.

In response, the Security Branch said draft laws covering many of the recommendations would be considered by legislators in the new session in September.

Principal assistant secretary Andrew Kluth confirmed legislation would be introduced to improve fire safety in buildings heavily used by the public.

Such buildings include banks, betting and foreign exchange shops, gold and jewellery stores and government offices such as Immigration and Transport.

'Hundreds rather than thousands of buildings are involved. The costings we have done show it is affordable,' Mr Kluth said.

Kwok Jing-keung, chairman of the special interdepartmental investigation team and Deputy Chief Fire Officer, told the inquest the Hongkong Bank staff should have had time to escape - but they did not try to leave the building.

'I think the most important thing about this fire is that the bank staff did not try to leave the premises. They thought that if they stayed behind the counter they would be all right,' he said. 'Because they were not aware of fire safety, they behaved irrationally.' A complete electricity blackout caused the staff to panic, hiding desperately in cubicles or under their counters.

'In the surveillance video, we could see the bank staff standing there motionless. Fire drills train people so in the event of a blaze they would behave more rationally,' he said.

Smoke engulfed the bank within seven or eight seconds, generating a lethal combination of carbon dioxide and monoxide, and the intense heat - 2,000 degrees Celsius - melted the glass counters.

The investigative team also found there were no specific fire instructions on the premises.

The report said multiple casualties could probably have been avoided had there been an alternative exit.

The absence of security staff could also have been detrimental, the report said. 'A vigilant security guard could have stopped the suspect from the start . . . and hence the tragedy may have been avoided,' it said.

Recommended fire prevention measures included the installation of automatic sprinklers, fire hydrants and an automatic cut-off device for the air-conditioning.

Emergency lighting should be installed, and for areas of more than 100 square metres, powder-based fire extinguishers.

The jury also recommended regular fire drills.