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Ngau Tau Kok fire

Deadly industrial building blaze claims life of second Hong Kong firefighter... with no end in sight

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying paid tribute to the firefighters and offered his condolences as government prepared for possibility of mass evacuation of entire neighbourhood

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 10:04am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 June, 2016, 9:59am

The inferno that engulfed an ­industrial building in a densely packed Hong Kong neighbourhood on Tuesday claimed a ­second firefighter’s life on Thursday evening as it ­continued to burn out of control for a third straight day.

The city was stunned by images of more firemen being carried out of the burning Amoycan Industrial Centre in Ngau Tau Kok on stretchers while their colleagues battled the smoke and flames with little progress.

Three firemen were rushed to hospital, where one of them succumbed to his injuries. Senior fireman Samuel Hui Chi-kit, 37, was found unconscious by his teammates on the third floor of the building as they were changing shifts to leave the site at about 7pm. He died at United Christian Hospital in Kwun Tong at 9.10pm.

Director of Fire Services David Lai Man-hin said Hui was one of the four members of a breathing apparatus team sent to the third floor.

Meeting the press with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, Lai broke down as he expressed his grief at the loss of his colleagues on Thursday night.

Repeatedly asked by the media whether better commanding and strategies could have avoided the two deaths, a tearful Lai said: “I have been the director for more than two years, and I spent 37 years in the fire services. The most difficult thing for me is to tell their relatives [about the deaths]… No member of the senior management could hope to sacrifice a colleague’s life.”

Hui is survived by his wife and a seven-year-old son.

The two other casualties were also in serious condition when they were rescued from the same floor at around the same time.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying paid tribute to the firefighters, and offered his condolences as well the government’s full support to Hui’s family.

The situation worsened as the city was still mourning senior ­station officer Thomas Cheung, 30, who died on Tuesday night.

The chief executive, acting Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kok and Civil Service Secretary Clement Cheung Wan-ching arrived at United Christian Hospital at around 12.20am to visit the injured firemen. They stayed for about 35 minutes.

As the government prepared for the possibility of a mass evacuation of the entire neighbourhood, the Education Bureau ­announced that classes would be suspended at several schools in the area on Friday.

Several double-decker buses and two community centres in neighbouring Kwun Tong and Lam Tin were on standby to provide transport and shelter for ­affected residents near the burning building.

The fourth-alarm blaze, which broke out at 11am on Tuesday, presented firefighters with a daunting task.

Asked why it was taking so long to put out the blaze, the longest-running in more than 20 years, deputy chief Kowloon Command officer Kong Ping-lam explained that the layout of the third to fifth floors of the building, ­belonging to a mini-storage company, was complex.

Firefighters had to break into hundreds of cubicles storing unidentified goods, including hawkers’ stoves and fuel.

The chief executive chaired two inter-departmental meetings – in the morning and at night – to discuss the crisis.

Leung denied speculation that the government had exerted undue pressure on the Fire Services Department to put out the blaze as quickly as possible at all costs.

“The senior-level officials have the responsibility to co-ordinate the work ... but their job is to co-ordinate, not to exert pressure,” Leung said late last night.

The fire services chief, standing next to Leung, broke down as he expressed his grief at the loss of his colleagues.

That was before he explained that the reason he was still sending firemen into the burning building was because every single one of the 200 storage cubicles inside had to be broken into, otherwise their contents would continue to burn.

The government has decided to launch an inspection of mini-storage premises across the city to ascertain if the unregulated trade has been violating fire safety and other laws.

The Security Bureau will lead a working group to study how to ­enhance the fire safety of mini-storage premises.

The government will also discuss with the trade how to work out short-term and medium-term measures to enhance fire safety.

The government also said it would not rule out the need to amend the law to further improve fire safety.

Police insiders told the Post that the force had made preparations to help in case the neighbourhood had to be evacuated.

“Officers from the Police Tactical Unit are ready to be deployed to evacuate affected residents and cordon off the area if necessary,” one source said.

But officials said an evacuation was not definite.

Buildings director Hui Siu-wai reassured the public that the industrial block was not in danger of collapsing, despite noticeable cracks on the exterior walls.

He explained that the cracks were restricted to rendering work which formed a protective layer over the brick walls.

“Even if there is localised peeling off of the rendering, it would not affect the building’s structural integrity,” Hui said.

He added that a thorough inspection could only be carried out after the fire was doused, as they could not reach the third floor or above.

Police promised a joint investigation with the Fire Services ­Department, starting with studying footage from closed-circuit television cameras in the building, and also looking into the involvement of criminal elements if any.

With smoke billowing out of the burning building for three days, Patrick Fung of environmental group Clean Air Network detected levels of the particulate matter PM2.5 that were 80 times above the limit set by the World Health Organisation.

He said prolonged exposure to such a polluted environment would cause irreversible lung damage, and advised nearby residents to assess whether there was a need to abandon their homes.

Around 4pm on Thursday, TBG Mall at Tak Bo Garden which is next to the scene, was closed.

Two primary schools nearest the burning building continued classes yesterday, but students could choose to stay at home.