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Minutes of horror amid smoke, fire
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-02-16 23:27

"I was bathing and the light was suddenly cut off. About one minute later, one bathhouse server ran in and cried `fire, fire.' At once, everybody was overcome by panic and tried to get away,'' said Li Fumin, who managed to escape from the Sunday fire in Northeast China's Jilin Province.

The fire, which is believed to be China's most devastating accident so far this year, killed 53 people and injured 71 on Sunday.

A victim of a fire receives treatment at a hospital in Jilin City, in northeast China's Jilin Province, February 15, 2004. [Reuters]

"My wife and I went to the third floor's bathhouse for a bath. Many shoppers were doing weekend shopping in the first and second floor's department store,'' said Li.

The fire engulfed the second floor when the couple discovered something was wrong.

There was more and more smoke streaming into the room. People seemed to be losing their minds, Li explained.

People ran from one place to another. But there was no way to get downstairs. Many women even ran into the men's bathhouse, Li recalled.

"I managed to find my wife. The smoke became thicker and thicker. And I knew it was dangerous to run aimlessly. So I decided to jump from the window,'' Li said.

The couple smashed up the glass with one bamboo pillow and tied several bed sheets together. Li first helped his wife and two kids slip down with the rope. And then he himself got down.

But the bedspread-made rope broke apart when Li got only as far as the second floor. He fell down the ground. But lucky enough, he survived with just scratches.

"My God! Who knows you could come up against such a thing when you've just gone bathing, '' said Li.

Unlike the Li family, not everybody managed to escape.

"We drove to the site at once when we received the call for help,'' said Liu Gang, a firefighter from the city of Jilin in Northeast China's Jilin Province.

"Many people leapt from the windows of the fourth floor. Some died on the ground. A lot of people were injured,'' Liu said.

Around 1:30 pm, Liu and his team members made their way into the flaming building.

"I was horrified when I came into the fourth floor along the eastern stairway; the house was entangled with bodies. The faces were black with soot, with the mouths wide-open and noses still bleeding,'' Liu said, trembling. "I can sense their suffering. It was really terrible.''

Seven firemen were injured in the building fire, bringing the injury toll to 77, the fire rescue headquarters said yesterday.

Of the seven, 22-year-old Sun Hongwei, injured his lower back and is the most seriously hurt. He and his six colleagues -- who suffered from minor injuries and smoke inhalation -- are being treated in hospital.

The headquarters also said 28 men and 25 women died, while 40 men and 37 women were injured. They are being treated in three separate hospitals in the city.

Most of the bodies have been identified, and the headquarters had published a list of 43 identified victims, most of whom were residents in the same community.

Jilin Governor Hong Hu said yesterday governments at all levels should learn from the accident and set up a special office to examine and supervise work safety and fire control.

Two detained for deadly hut fire in Zhejiang

Another woman was confirmed dead Monday after Sunday's blaze at a simple temple in Haining, East China's Zhejiang Province. Two suspects have been detained, local police said.

The latest casualty brings the toll to 40 dead and 3 seriously injured, a local senior official said.

All the injured are undergoing medical treatment at the local hospital.

The fire broke out at about 2:10 pm at a 60-square-metre thatched hut of the Wufeng Village, where about 50 women aged between 40 and 80 were worshipping, said Xu Hui, vice-mayor of Haining.

As many people rushed to get out through the only door, which was bamboo made and measured 1.2 by 2 metres, the bamboo used to sustain the shed fell. Then the thatched shed collapsed, which suffocated and killed most of the women who were too weak and old to escape the blaze, said Xu.

The fire was put out half an hour later.

Chen Jianliang, the only man in the shed, was detained for building the hut illegally, local police said. He presided over the rite the women were observing.

Another three women, who helped Chen organize the so-called "Pu Tang Chan" (to smooth people's path to the nether world after death) ritual have been summoned, police said.

The women inside the burning building believed the seal of "Pu Tang Chan" could protect them on the way to Hades. They each paid Chen 1 yuan (US$0.12) after the rite, Xu said.

Xu said the hut was built on the location of a historic temple that was torn down in the 1960's to build a school. The school was later demolished and some villagers suggested rebuilding the temple.

"The accident has shown that the weak point of firefighting in our province is in the countryside," said Chen Guopin, a senior official from Zhejiang Province.

A special group has been established to investigate and deal with the accident, said Chen.

Compensation for the dead villagers is still under discussion. There are ongoing discussions as to who is responsible, Chen said.

None of them have life insurance.

The three injured women are still under observation and could soon be out of danger, said a doctor at Haining Hospital who declined to give his name.

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