x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Widespread anger over lax safety standards

Thousands congregate outside the high-rise building in Shanghai where at least 58 people died in an horrific fire last week, as concerns continued to be raised over lax safety standards.

Chinese police officers stand guard while a paper reads,
Chinese police officers stand guard while a paper reads, "Don't Cry Shanghai," is seen in the crowds as they gather to watch an apartment building, which were damaged by fire in Shanghai, east China Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010. Thousands of somber Chinese marked a traditional day of mourning Sunday for 58 people killed in the high-rise fire in a gathering closely watched by police. (AP Photo) *** Local Caption *** XAW101_China_Fire.jpg

BEIJING // Thousands congregated yesterday outside the high-rise building in Shanghai where at least 58 people died in an horrific fire last week, as concerns continued to be raised over lax safety standards in China's building industry.

Yesterday's gathering, coming on the seventh day, a traditional day of mourning in China, saw police pulling away by their collars people who entered a mourning area without flowers, according to reports.

Hundreds of people have left flowers, pictures of those who died, stuffed animals and even cigarettes outside the building in the days since the tragedy.

There were no actual protests, although many residents said the authorities were to blame for the heavy loss of life.

"The rescue was not timely or helpful enough. I don't believe anything the government says," said Wang Yingxing, who lived in the ill-fated apartment block and who lost his wife, Wang Hao, in the blaze.

Mr Wang, who spoke by telephone, said he and other survivors were "not in the mood" to visit the site yesterday.

Yesterday, a man outside the building, who witnessed the fire, echoed this view.

"Shame on them! How dare they say the rescue was successful? We here feel so sorry for those miserable families, but not for the government," he said.

Young people wearing badges that labelled them as "volunteers" passed around black-and-white posters with the words: "Shanghai don't cry: mourn the victims of Shanghai's Jiaozhou road fire."

Senior officials in the Shanghai government were among those who bowed three times in tribute to the dead, according to a China news service report.

"We feel deeply about this. We'll do our best to help you overcome your difficulties," Shanghai's Communist party chief ,Yu Zhengsheng, told victims' families on Friday, according to a Beijing Times report.

Monday's fire left 71 people hospitalised and an unknown number missing, with officials saying most victims died in their homes from smoke inhalation and the heat.

The 13-year-old apartment building, which housed 440 people in 156 flats, was being renovated to improve energy efficiency.

Sparks produced by unlicensed welders have been blamed for igniting wooden scaffolding and nylon netting that was covering the building. At least four welders are among a dozen people arrested after the fire.

Media in China have questioned the complex web of sub-contracting linked to the upgrading work that allowed apparently unlicensed workmen to become involved in the project, despite the $4.5 million (Dh16.53m) contract reportedly being won by a state-owned firm. A lack of oversight by the authorities, and even corruption, have been blamed for allowing safety lapses.

Those carrying out work that led to the fire are mainly migrant labourers on short-term contracts, and complaints were made this week that many smoke on the job and leave flammable materials lying around.

The insulating polyurethane foam being added to the building has also been described as a fire hazard. Similar material was blamed for a 2008 nightclub fire in the southern city of Shenzhen in which 43 people died.

Officials in Beijing have ordered projects like the one being carried out in Shanghai to be put on hold until potential hazards can be rectified. However, work has been allowed to continue in Shanghai, although it was suspended at one time to allow safety reviews.

In the local press, experts have also asked whether the absence of thermal barriers between floors in mainland high-rise buildings make them more vulnerable when a blaze breaks out. These one-metre-thick layers between walls or floors to stop fires spreading are compulsory in Hong Kong.

Anger over last week's tragedy comes as a construction boom of unprecedented scale continues in China, with continued economic growth fuelling the building of vast numbers of high-rise apartment blocks, even though the property market has slowed this year.

The apartment fire came soon after the ending of the World Expo in Shanghai, an event that, like the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, was designed to showcase China's ability to modernise its infrastructure and stage large events. An estimated tens of billions of dollars has been spent on a new airport terminal, new subway lines and other improvements.

* With additional reporting by The Associated Press