Search for culprits as Shanghai apartment block fire toll tops 50

THE death toll from a Shanghai apartment block fire has risen to 53, as China’s top police official vowed to punish anyone found responsible for the disaster.

The blaze raged for several hours yesterday, causing panicked residents to stumble over each other to escape as thick smoke spread above China’s commercial hub.

The 28-storey building in one of the most densely populated districts of the city of nearly 20 million people was under renovation when the fire broke out mid-afternoon.

Bright orange flames enveloped scaffolding and spread to the building as the fire blazed, gutting much of the structure.

Photos published by state media showed residents clinging to the scaffolding to escape the flames.

Hu Zhenqing, 60, who lived on 20th floor, told the Global Times newspaper that he heard several desperate cries as he and his wife fled the building.

“It was gut wrenching, then we saw a woman jump from high above. We didn’t see where she landed, but I don’t think she made it,” Hu said.

At least 53 people died and 70 were being treated for injuries, the official Xinhua news agency said.

The government would thoroughly investigate the fire and punish anyone responsible, Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu was quoted as saying by Xinhua. The State Council, or cabinet, has set up an investigation team.

No possible cause has yet been identified.

But a woman who lived in the block, identified only by her surname Zhao, told Xinhua she had filed complaints about construction workers dropping cigarette butts around the building.

“Such a horrible scene belongs in novels, not real life. I could hardly believe my eyes,” she said.

Another witness told the Global Times that careless welding work could have ignited the fire.

Survivor Li Xiuyun, 61, said she fled down the steps of the building with her husband, son and granddaughter from their home on the 16th floor until they met firefighters who took them to safety.

“The smoke was very strong and the glass from the windows was scalding,” she said at the Jingan District Hospital, adding that she cut her feet on shattered glass as she fled.

“My son took off his socks and soaked them with water, and we used them to cover our noses.”

The building was an apartment block for teachers, according to state media reports, which said most were retired.

State television footage showed people, their faces smudged by soot, stumbling out of the building grimacing in pain as the fire raged, with rescue services helping them.

Firefighters eventually extinguished the blaze after four and a half hours.

A total of 156 families lived in the building, municipal officials said in a statement. Residents told AFP the renovations had begun only recently and most inhabitants were still living in the building.

Deadly fires are common in China due to lax observation and enforcement of fire safety measures.

The fire set off a debate about fire safety and the gulf between standards in residential and commericial buildings in a city of skyscapers.

“If it was Jinmao Tower or Shanghai World Financial Center, I don’t think it would keep burning for so long,” Pan Ding, who lives in the next building, told the China Daily, naming Shanghai’s two tallest towers.

“The fire would have been extinguished in half an hour,” he said.

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