China Hunts Culprits in Disco Fire
LUOYANG, China (AP) _ Premier Zhu Rongji pledged on Wednesday to punish those responsible for a Christmas night fire that fatally trapped hundreds of holiday revelers in a fourth-floor disco with a long history of safety violations.
Police questioned 20 people with ties to the shopping center and put them under close watch in connection with the deaths Tuesday of 309 people, most of whom died in the disco, state television reported.
Officials throughout China were ordered by the Public Security Ministry to shut down unlicensed and unsafe dance halls and to check hotels, shopping malls and other public venues.
In Luoyang, relatives tearfully scanned the lists of victims as reports emerged of years of safety violations at the Dongdu Commercial Building. The shopping center was declared unsafe three years ago but never made fire safety improvements, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The fire apparently began in a furniture shop below ground, with the flames only reaching the first-floor lobby, Xinhua said. But smoke rushed quickly up stairwells, suffocating trapped partygoers.
The fourth-floor disco had no emergency exits, Xinhua said, and of the two regular exits, one was filled with smoke and the other hidden from view behind a bar, survivors quoted on the Web sites of local newspapers said. Smoke also prevented firefighters from getting inside, and panicked patrons were hanging out windows and balconies hoping for rescue.
Wang Weihong, a survivor quoted by the Southern Daily newspaper, said she and her boyfriend escaped by smashing the window in a private back room of the disco and were rescued by firefighters at 1 a.m., half an hour after the fire was put out. Three others in the room succumbed to the smoke and died, the newspaper reported.
Other victims included construction workers doing renovations elsewhere in the building. Construction workers in China often labor around the clock, and at least 100 were at work when the fire occurred, the Southern Daily reported.
Investigators had not ruled out any causes, at least publicly.
In Beijing, Zhu and Vice President Hu Jintao ``ordered a thorough investigation into the cause of the fire and severe punishment of those responsible,″ China Central Television reported.
Authorities have turned up a history of delinquent management at the building, particularly over fire standards. Provincial inspectors listed the building, leased to private managers, as one of the 40 most dangerous commercial outlets in Henan province in 1997, Xinhua said.
Luoyang authorities pulled the building’s license to lease recreational space, but managers continued to rent out the fourth floor as a disco, the report said. Shop space was leased to private businesses without legal contracts, it said.
The managers recently signed a contract with a Taiwanese investor to make renovations, Xinhua said, and work was under way when the fire broke out.
The Luoyang city government spokesman, who spoke on condition his name not be used, confirmed the Xinhua report but refused to provide further details.
Officials stood by the death toll of 309, but other news reports suggested it could be higher. The Southern Daily newspaper reported that some 600 people were in the shopping center at the time of the fire, 500 of them in the disco, based on ticket sales.
On Wednesday, scores of people filed into a makeshift government office in the downtown Luoyang Hotel for word on family members feared dead. Bodies were being kept at a morgue elsewhere in Luoyang, an ancient city located along the Yellow River.
Emerging from the building, one woman crumbled to the grass after learning that her 28-year-old brother was among the dead.
As angry and anxious relatives pushed forward demanding word of missing family members, paramilitary police restored order by joining hands in a human chain around the crowd. City officials pleaded for calm.
The blaze was the worst in China since the Dec. 8, 1994, fire in a theater in the far western region of Xinjiang that killed 385 people, most of them children.