Published: 19:31, April 11, 2024 | Updated: 11:35, April 12, 2024
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Experts: Fire safety must be enforced
By Wu Kunling in Hong Kong

Strict penalties needed for those who fail to make required changes

A fireman reaches in to rescue a resident of New Lucky House where a deadly fire broke out on the morning of April 10, 2024, killing five, in Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY) 

As the probe continues into the fatal fire in Jordan, Yau Mai Tei district, government sources said that owners of the burning building have disregarded an official fire safety order issued in 2008, which may have exacerbated the casualties.

The blaze, which erupted on the first and second floors of the 60-year-old New Lucky House on Wednesday morning, has claimed five lives and injured over 40, including a one-year-old baby. Seven people remain in a critical condition on Thursday.

While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, firefighters navigating the intense two-hour rescue operation reported finding unauthorized alterations and several damaged fire doors, which hindered rescue efforts and could have contributed to the high number of casualties.

In a radio program on Thursday, Lam Kin-kwan, commander of the Fire Services Department’s Kowloon South division, said the building’s three staircases, each capable of facilitating 100 people to escape, should have been smoke-free. However, several broken fire doors at the staircase near the main entrance might have allowed a lot of smoke to enter the stairwell.

The damaged facilities are reportedly linked to a continued failure to act on a fire safety directive issued by the Buildings Department in 2008. The directive had ordered the building owners’ corporation to undertake a series of upgrades, including replacing fire doors, covering nonemergency equipment with fire-resistant materials, and installing fire-resistant windows.

Despite appointing consultants in 2015 and twice in 2020 to follow up on the directive, the owners’ corporation failed to report any progress.

In 2018, New Lucky House was ordered to undergo a mandatory inspection, a standard requirement for all Hong Kong buildings aged 30 years or above that would normally be completed in six months.

In May 2023, a registered inspector submitted a report and recommended repair work for the building, including the replacement of fire doors, and protection of an escape staircase. At the time of the fire, the repair work was out for tender.

Post-incident evaluations confirmed fire damage to parts of the building but not to its overall structure.

Lee Kwong-sing, education and training executive of the Hong Kong Institute of Safety Practitioner, told China Daily that the city has revised an array of laws, such as the Building Management Ordinance, to strengthen fire prevention for old buildings like New Lucky House. The reform was spurred by the 1996 Garley Building fire tragedy, which resulted in 41 deaths and 80 injuries.

However, the biggest challenge lies in implementing and enforcing these regulations and laws, Lee said.

He urged the government to set clear deadlines for completing fire safety directions and to punish those who fail to make the required improvements in time.

Gilbert Law Kam-cheong, former chairman of the Fire Division of Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, said numerous hotels in the building pose additional fire risks.

Outdated fire safety facilities and internal structures are insufficient to cope with today’s mixed residential and commercial environment, Law said, adding that hotel residents are often unfamiliar with the evacuation routes in the building, which exacerbates the risk.

He urged the government to be more cautious in issuing licenses to hotels in old buildings.

Chan Siu-tong, a Yau Tsim Mong district council member, said the diverse ownership of many old buildings in the district has led to a lack of management, and the substantial costs of maintaining buildings often result in owners procrastinating on whether to get work done.