The day a building collapse killed 70 people in Delhi, Shanghai fire fighters battled a 28-storey inferno that left 53 residents dead, over 70 injured and several missing.
Both tragedies were avoidable if rules had been enforced. The Shanghai fire also holds urban safety pointers for India as more high-rises top the metros. Chinese editorials and thousands of bloggers are demanding that authorities upgrade fire-fighting equipment and regulate the construction boom where buildings are built to last an average of only 25-30 years.
The 13-year-old tower was under renovation to make it energy efficient. It was swathed in flammable bamboo scaffolding and nylon nets. Welding sparks ignited the scaffolding. Firefighting equipment could not reach the upper half of the 85-m building until it was hosed from a neighbouring rooftop. The tower was home to 156 families. Some clambered down the scaffolding or jumped out of windows. Thick smoke hampered helicopter rescues.
On Thursday, an official investigator called the fire ‘completely avoidable’ and blamed unlicensed welders, illegal subcontractors and poor safety practices —factors common to Indian construction sites too.
On blogs, the fire sparked questions about the quality of a hurried building boom. “The frequency of fire accidents has led to public concerns that the nation’s breakneck construction boom has sown seeds of deadly tragedies,’’ said the Global Times.
A Chinese engineer told the paper that China could not effectively fight fires in buildings taller than 100 metres. Shanghai has over 100 buildings higher than 100 metres. “We have no escape equipment for residents on upper floors,” he said. Beijing has 7,000 high-rises. Its tallest firefighting ladder can reach 90 metres.
The Cabinet has issued fire control measures, made local leaders accountable and ordered nationwide inspections in high-rises and construction sites. Loopholes have already been found in a children’s hospital in Beijing. Xian city has promptly ordered the world’s highest 101-m fire scaling ladder. Last year in Beijing, I watched a 159-m five-star hotel burn to a steel skeleton while hoses reached half its height.