Fear, confusion stalk residential areas near site of Hanoi warehouse fire

By Vo Hai, Tat Dinh, Thanh Hang, Le Nga   September 10, 2019 | 07:03 pm PT
People living in the vicinity of the Rang Dong warehouse in Hanoi that burned down last month have abandoned their homes after health issues surfaced.

It has been 14 days since the fire at the light bulb storage facility, but a nauseating smell of smoke and ashes still lingers in the air. On Khuong Dinh Street next to the warehouse in Thanh Xuan District, over 25 buildings, most of them restaurants and clothes stores, are now abandoned.

What used to be a busy shopping neighborhood is now silent and desolate. Hastily written relocation notes could be seen on some of the doors.

Do Dinh Hiep, 36, was rearranging items to reopen his house, which doubles as a gas stove store. Situated on Alley 342 off Khuong Dinh, it is only a few centimeters away from the warehouse. The fire burned down his second floor, reducing his children’s bedroom to dust and staining the walls in black. The family temporarily resides in a small apartment a kilometer away.

Following the fire the media warned of the threat of possible mercury contamination. Warnings were later issued not to consume food or water in the vicinity. Authorities stepped in to perform tests and verify the contamination level.

Panic ensued.

Hiep took his wife and three children aged two to seven to the local Saint Paul Hospital for mercury testing on Monday morning.

"Two days ago our eldest child woke up and bled from his nose, and said his head hurt," Hiep said.

"By afternoon our youngest also bled from his nose and was crying non-stop. We [husband and wife] felt dizzy and pain in the back of our heads. As the hospital was too crowded, I got my children diagnosed first, and we plan to go back another time."

A man in a mask walks in Alley 342 off Khuong Dinh Street on September 9, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

A man in a mask walks in Alley 342 off Khuong Dinh Street, Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi, on September 9, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Hiep’s family is not the only one to be affected by the fire. Another resident of the street, Ngo Van Luc, 45, said he is a laborer who uses Alley 432 to eat and rest at noon before returning home in the evening to Chuong My District on the city’s outskirts.

Inside his 10-sq.m room three fans are running at full speed. The smoky smell has never quite left his residence following the fire, but that’s the least of his worries. He went to a medical facility in Ha Dinh Ward last Friday to complain about dizziness and fatigue, and was told to take a mercury poisoning test at Saint Paul Hospital.

He said: "Some of my clients returned the cement and sand I delivered to them after knowing they had been stored near the Rang Dong warehouse. They don’t even allow me to deliver stuff using my own tractor."

Thuc, who runs a porridge restaurant in Ha Dinh just across from Khuong Dinh, also had to close down for a week.

She said: "The shop used to be so busy in the afternoon. After the fire there were fewer and fewer guests until yesterday when there were only a handful of people, forcing me to close down."

People in the vicinity have been evacuating the area after the fire. As of Monday over 250 families had left the four apartment blocks at 54 Ha Dinh, which is 150 meters from the warehouse. Only 50 families remain.

Only a handful of apartments are occupied at 54 Ha Dinh Street. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Only a handful of apartments are occupied at 54 Ha Dinh Street, Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Nghiem Vu Thinh, 72, said all three of his adult children have homes in the urban area, and they and their families reunite with their parents after dinner. But they all left four days ago.

"The environmental survey results keep changing every day, we don't even know what to believe in.

"I told my children to move to another place to safeguard their children's health."

The neighborhood has never been so quiet in the 13 years he has lived there, he said.

Trinh Thu Huyen, 37, who used to live with her family in an apartment at 54 Ha Dinh, has moved to a smaller apartment in a different district she rents for VND6 million ($259) a month and taken her children out of Ha Dinh Secondary School, which is not far from the warehouse.

She said: "We have a home but can't go back. My children ask me every day when they can go back to school. We hope to see a clear and unambiguous environmental survey result. If the environment is indeed polluted, city authorities better clean it up so that people could resume their normal life."

A student wearing a mask walks in an alley near the Rang Dong warehouse. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

A student wearing a mask walks in an alley near the Rang Dong warehouse, Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Like Huyen, Vu Xuan Toan was worried about his child's health after the fire. While they live two kilometers away from the warehouse, his son is studying at Ha Dinh Primary School, 550 meters (1,800 feet) from the warehouse. He was worried about interrupting his child's schooling, he said.

But of the school's 1,310 students, 320 were absent on Monday, 129 on health concerns, 83 because their families had moved out and 92 due to sickness.

"I want the Ministry of Education and Training to allow students to be off until the pollution is taken care of," Toan said.

Students' parents have asked for health checks for their children and permission to stay away from school for a week, but their request was denied since the school was deemed to be outside the polluted area.

The fire did pollute the environment, a person living in Alley 190 off Ha Dinh, who asked not to be named, said, adding they were willing to transfer their children to another school since "mercury poisoning signs do not appear immediately."

Health checks at the ward medical station were of no use since they have only measured people' pulse and blood pressure, the person said.

Hanoi warehouse fire consigns neighbors to life in masks. Video by VnExpress/The Quynh, Loc Chung.

A five-hour blaze that started at 6 p.m. on August 28 destroyed a third of the inventory at the 6,000-square-meter warehouse belonging to the Rang Dong Light Source and Vacuum Flask JSC in Thanh Xuan Trung Ward, Thanh Xuan District.

Investigations have only revealed that storage procedures were the cause of the fire. The exact cause is yet to be determined.

The Vietnam Environment Administration said Sunday that 15.2-27.2 kilograms of mercury had been released into the environment following the fire.

People living nearby began to move out of their homes the following day due to health concerns as several complained of fatigue and stinging eyes.

Three hundred and twenty people living in Ha Dinh and Thanh Xuan Trung wards have been tested for mercury poisoning since Friday, but "none showed signs of abnormal, acute poisoning," Tran Nhi Ha, deputy director of the city Department of Health, said.

Rang Dong, a leading manufacturer of lighting products and equipment, has estimated the loss from the fire at VN150 billion ($6.4 million).

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