Improve training for Hong Kong firefighters and building management staff, Coroner’s Court urges after deadly 2014 gas blast
Inquest finds lapses in handling of Shek Kip Mei incident that killed principal fireman Leung Kwok-kei
A Hong Kong court on Wednesday urged the Fire Services Department to improve training for firefighters in the handling of gas leaks, following a Shek Kip Mei explosion that killed a principal fireman in 2014.
Coroner Wong Wai-kuen also called on the property management company involved to provide proper staff training and urged the provision of gas detectors in buildings, in light of the three-hour delay found in the case. He suggested that the government look into the recommendations, which could be applied to all buildings.
Wong’s comments concluded a week-long inquest over the death of fireman Leung Kwok-kei, 49, who was killed after a gas leak in a flat led to an explosion when his team forced their way in.
Wong observed that the gas explosion on November 22, 2014 at Mei Ying House in Shek Kip Mei Estate was “very unusual”, but concluded Leung’s death was an accident.
Leung was survived by his wife and 17-year-old daughter, after 29 years of meritorious service with the department. His sister Leung Miu-ngor cried in court as Wong extended his condolences.
The Coroner’s Court heard the gas leak at the public housing estate began at about 5.30am that day when a chemist living in the flat turned the dial on his gas stove in the kitchen to the maximum, loosened gas pipes, closed all windows and lit some clothes stored in a plastic box.
A neighbour reported smelling the gas at about 8.20am, which prompted three security guards to conduct six rounds of checks. It was not until three hours later that they called police.
When firefighters broke in and disrupted air flows within the gas-filled flat, the resulting explosion threw Leung, who was supervising colleagues at the entrance, against a corridor wall and blew off his helmet.
He died 13 days later of bronchopneumonia, which he contracted after falling into a coma from three skull fractures measuring 15cm to 22cm.
Eight other firefighters were injured.
The flat’s tenant was found dead in the kitchen, wearing eight layers of clothing and three pairs of pants. Autopsy results showed he had died earlier at 8.15am, of carbon monoxide poisoning. Investigators found antidepressants in his blood, which suggested a history of mental illness.
Wong said the incident was “very strange” as the explosion was caused by a suicide.
He observed that the most regrettable part of the tragedy was that neighbours had noticed the gas leak early on, but security guards mistook the smell for fumes from a kerosene stove.
“Apart from the lack of relevant training, it was dangerous to simply rely on one’s sense of smell instead of objective data,” Wong said. “The cost of a gas detector is nothing compared to that of a human life.”
The coroner also said firefighters’ training was “obviously problematic”, given that frontline officers did not seem to understand guidelines that stated the compulsory use of anti-flash hoods.
He also made the observation that firefighters were not aware of the need for commanders to be apprised of gas concentration readings before entering flats in such scenarios.
Wong concluded there was a need to improve guidelines and enhance training at management level for fire services staff.
The department’s counsel Kenneth Yuen, who made similar recommendations, said: “I believe the suggestion will be appropriately followed up on.”
A Housing Department spokesman said: “We will study the recommendations by the coroner in detail and consider the way forward.”
Lau Kit-ching, assistant director of Nice Property Management, which oversees Mei Ying House, said the company provided staff training on the handling of emergencies – such as fires, power outages and gas leaks – once every three months.
“We will actively consider the court’s recommendations,” she said.