In China, an example of safety taking a back seat

Fingerpointing follows Monday's deadly fire, but are reforms next?

The Christmas evening conflagration that killed 309 people in central China's Henan Province has prompted President Jiang Zemin to demand severe punishments for those responsible. But it is not clear whether that will be enough to bring about fire-safety measures that could prevent the recurrence of such a disaster.

Lack of smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinklers, or emergency exits is often the norm in China, despite periodic government fire-safety campaigns - usually begun in the wake of a major disaster.

The Monday night blaze in a Luoyang City shopping and entertainment complex was thought to have begun in faulty electrical wiring two floors below ground level, but the more than 200 Christmas revelers in a fourth-floor discotheque were not warned in time. Dozens of ambulances from the city's hospitals lined up outside in vain, as only seven people were able to escape the building by shattering windows and jumping to air mattresses below. Other victims were mostly construction workers who had been finishing renovations on a different floor.

The Luoyang fire was the country's most destructive in four years, but high death tolls are still not uncommon in China.

Entertainment centers, shopping malls, and apartment blocks throughout the country frequently lack alarm systems and typically padlock all exits, save one where a guard is present. At night, even in dormitories and apartment towers, doors will be locked for security reasons with the only key in the hands of a doorman. Only some of the buildings put up in recent years are equipped with fire detection and prevention systems.

A cinema blaze in May killed 74 patrons when none could kick down the theater doors, locked to deter sneaks. That accident also occurred in Henan Province, China's most populous.

The government metes out heavy penalties up to life imprisonment as punishment for those deemed responsible in high-profile tragedies, such as the Henan blaze in May, but serious attention to fire prevention is difficult to come by where local officials often work hand-in-glove with proprietors.

Official state media reported that several people had been arrested in connection with Monday's fire, and that about 20 suspects are under "close surveillance."

The owners of Luoyang complex had been warned about the building's poor fire-safety facilities beginning in 1997, state media said. But it continued operating even after an inspection only one week ago revealed inadequacies.

"Every developer needs a safety certificate to operate - but usually these are obtained through connections," says one Beijing property manager. "They will usually give safety recommendations," she says, but "there are always ways to keep business going."

In a parallel with Monday's tragedy, a Christmas party exactly one year earlier in the bathhouse of the Changchun Hawaii Grand Hotel ended in disaster when holiday decorations caught fire, adding to a blaze that claimed 20 lives and left 51 with serious injuries in the northern city of Changchun. According to a local newspaper, fire-safety officials had earlier the very same day concluded an inspection of the hotel. In December 1994, 323 people - 288 of them children - died in a concert-hall fire in Karamay in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang. A month before that, 233 were killed in a dance hall fire in the northeastern province of Liaoning, trapped inside emergency exits that were chained shut. Communist China's deadliest fire occurred on lunar new year's day in February 1977, when 694 perished in a cinema blaze in Yili, Xinjiang.

Ideally, Monday's fire would be China's equivalent to Cocoanut Grove, a nightclub fire in Boston, Mass. that killed 492 people in 1942 and changed American attitudes and fire-safety laws, says George Miller, president of the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), based in Quincy, Mass.

"That was a wake-up call for this country. Today, [US] fire inspectors won't allow you to lock exit doors - and employees won't tolerate it," says Mr. Miller.

But the fire in Luoyang is not unusual in a developing country where employees often don't know the fire law. "If they do, they're so happy to have a job, they're not going to risk it by complaining about locked exit doors," adds Miller. "I have a lot of respect for what China is doing now, but the country is so big and diverse," he says. He notes that NFPA Life Safety and Fire codes were recently translated into Chinese, and are starting to be used in some new construction sites.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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