Hong Kong firefighters who died in Ngau Tau Kok blaze were brave, but were they really heroes?

Peter Kammerer says while they deserve praise for doing a tough job, the focus should remain on efforts to find out what went wrong in the operation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 July, 2016, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 July, 2016, 12:16pm

There are a handful of words that Hong Kong should use sparingly to protect their significance. Condemn is as strong as it gets when it comes to criticism; it should be applied only to the most reprehensible behaviour. Certain people with non-mainstream ideas are sometimes referred to as being “radical” or “extremist”, an oddity given that we are so proud of our freedom of expression. Then there is “hero”.

We’ve heard “hero” a lot in the past few weeks to describe the firefighters who tackled the blaze at the Amoycan Industrial Centre in Ngau Tau Kok. Officials were quick to call the two who lost their lives, Thomas Cheung and Samuel Hui Chi-kit, heroes. Tributes abounded, they were posthumously awarded gold medals for bravery on July 1 and celebrities launched a Facebook campaign.

Up from the ashes: Hong Kong firefighters’ rep speaks after Ngau Tau Kok blaze

There is something dark about people who use death to preen their careers. But I find it equally odd that, before a thorough investigation has been carried out, the word “hero” is used. Now, this is guaranteed to cause some anger, but being in the wrong place at the wrong time does not seem heroic to me. Until otherwise is proven, we should stick to “brave” and “courageous”, terms that apply to every firefighter.

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time does not seem heroic to me

It’s too easy to call firefighters heroes. Their job is literally to dash into burning buildings to save lives. Emergencies account for only a small amount of their time, though; their shifts of 24 hours on, 48 hours off are mostly about training, checking equipment, ensuring fire regulations are being followed, rescuing people from lifts, educating the community about fire safety and getting exercise. But we have to put thoughts of an easy work schedule aside when the emergency alarm sounds and it’s time to speed off to carry out the most dangerous job a civil servant could possibly face.

Shame it takes a tragedy to realise our sense of community

Firefighters consistently rank as the most popular government workers and for good reason; as their job is to protect and save us and our property, there is little they can be criticised for. The pay is good – the starting salary is HK$19,780 a month – and their protective gear and firefighting equipment is the best available. But it still takes the utmost courage to go into places where death could lurk around the next corner. Temperatures in the worst-hit places at the Amoycan building were as high as 1,500 degrees Celsius. When we hear of such conditions and learn of the tragedy, it’s easy to forget about last October’s scandal that revealed the sexual harassment of new recruits and the lax inspection regime behind too many fires in our city.

This time, let’s heed the lessons of a fire that claimed two lives

Firefighters have twice come to my rescue. A few months ago, I got stuck in an office building lift at 7am and had to call on them to prise open the jammed doors. More embarrassingly, there was the time I went to sleep having forgotten about the pot of noodles I was cooking. An alert neighbour put in a call; the sound of metal security gates being pounded open raised me from my slumber and I blearily opened the wooden front door wearing only my underwear. One of the three firefighters who rushed in turned off the stove, another opened the windows and the third sternly lectured me about the dangers of leaving food cooking unattended. Those times, I was the only one to call them heroes.

But it’s still the right sentiment: Someone doesn’t have to die for the “hero” accolade to be applied.

Cheung and Hui were, without question, brave and courageous. But firefighters should never die in a blaze; when they do, it is because something went wrong, such as a breakdown in communication or a bungling in the command chain. To praise those who were killed as heroes for simply doing their job is to shift the focus from that failing. It also lessens the meaning of a hallowed word.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post