“Hunt for inferno bodies: Two dead, 70 injured and 93 rescued as blaze rages through Nathan Road office block”, was the headline Hongkongers woke up to in the South China Morning Post the day after the Garley Building fire, which claimed 41 lives 20 years ago today.
“Two people died, one was confirmed missing and scores more hurt last night when fire ripped through a building in Yau Ma Tei. But teams were early today searching the block for as many as 40 more victims,” the report continued.
“Fire tore through the 16-storey Garley Building at 233 Nathan Road for more than eight hours after a small blaze quickly turned into an inferno, trapping dozens. One of the dead was a fireman. Ninety-three people, including three other fire officers, were plucked to safety during a massive rescue operation.”
The Post reported that 32 fire engines and two government helicopters had attended the scene.
“Fire chiefs said the blaze, which started about 4.50pm, was exacerbated by a lack of fire-fighting equipment and locked doors which hampered the rescue. The building had no fire alarm or sprinklers,” the story went on.
On November 22, the Post devoted five pages to coverage of the fire. The day’s headlines summarised the story: “39 dead in fire horror”; “Strangers united in grim, silent vigil”; “Speed of blaze astounds officers”; “Teams to report on design defects”; “700 office blocks could be deathtraps”; “Searching and grieving for those lost in the inferno”; “‘Walk into hell’ to identify remains”; “Emotional scars greater than physical ones”; “Hotline set up to counsel survivors”; “Pledge to review scope of new law on building safety”; “Governor fights tears in paying tribute to victims”; “Look at law, says Tung”; and “Compensation may take up to two years”.
A commission of inquiry, set up under Mr Justice Woo Kwok-hing, on August 19, 1997, concluded that sparks and molten metal from welding had started the blaze after workers failed to take fire-safety precautions.
The Garley Building fire remains Hong Kong’s most deadly inferno since the second world war.
On the first anniversary of the fire, the Post reported the “Death certificate torment” of families of the victims who “only received their relatives' death certificates [crucial for families left financially crippled by the deaths of their loved ones, whose assets had been frozen] this week, a year after the inferno killed 40.”