Hanoi deadly fire result of lack of oversight

By Staff reporters   September 16, 2023 | 07:00 am PT
Safety violations at a Hanoi's apartment block where 56 people died in a fire last Tuesday were left unchecked for years, while its residents had no guidance in case of fire.

On Tuesday night, a fire engulfed an apartment block in an alley off Khuong Ha Street in Hanoi's Thanh Xuan District, leaving 56 people dead and 37 others injured. Of the victims, 10 were children.

The accident marks the deadliest fire that has ever occurred in Vietnam in the past 21 years since the one at ITC shopping mall in Ho Chi Minh City that killed 60 people in 2002.

One day after the Hanoi fire, the building's owner, Nghiem Quang Minh, 44, was arrested and is now being investigated for violating fire safety regulations.

Eight years ago, Minh obtained a license to build a house on a floor area of 240 sq.m.

Thanh Xuan District allowed him to build a six-story house.

However, Minh turned the project into a 10-storey mini apartment building, with four-five apartments on each floor, and sold it to 45 families.

"The apartment's owner had dodged the law and applied for a license to build a house with less than seven floors so that the building would not have to be inspected for fire prevention design and firefighting equipment," said Bui Xuan Thai, an expert at the Vietnam Fire and Rescue Association.

According to existing regulations on fire safety techniques, buildings with seven floors or more must have a fire prevention certificate, which requires it to have two escape routes and certain equipment to prevent and put out fire when necessary.

In fact, the ten-story is built in the style of a "tube house," which means it has just one exit at its front while the other three sides are completely closed.

Toà nhà xây 10 tầng trong khi chỉ được xây 6 tầng. Ảnh:Gia Chính

The apartment building with ten floors in Thanh Xuan District that caught fire on September 13, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh

The entire building has just one escape route, which is a staircase.

A security guard at the building said the fire started from an electrical outlet in the parking area on the first floor, and then spread to the upper floors, making it impossible to reach and rescue people from that one staircase.

The other escape and rescue route was the apartment's balconies, but most of them were fenced in with stainless steel iron bars as residents were afraid of burglars.

Some apartments have no bars, but they were locked from inside or do not have stairs to climb down from the fire escape.

Rescuers said it took at least five-ten minutes to cut through the iron bars and get inside those apartments.

The apartment building lies in a narrow alley that spans only three meters wide, making it difficult for firefighters to approach.

Fifteen fire trucks were dispatched to the scene but had to stop about 400 meters away from the fire. Fire police had to use hoses to lead water from the tanks to the fire and use small ladders to climb up and fight the blaze.

According to fire prevention regulations, apartment buildings with more than seven floors must ensure access to roads for fire trucks so that the truck would park no farther than 10 m away, and the building itself must have fire hydrants.

Joining rescuers at the scene, Nguyen Van Dai, a member of the volunteer group First Aid Support Angel, said he saw many bodies on the stairs and in front of many apartments.

Dai said the stairs are narrow, stretching only 1.5 m wide, making it challenging for both rescuing and escaping. "Those who escape through the balconies still have a higher chance of survival than other ways," he said.

Cảnh sát phòng cháy leo tường tiếp cận những người bị nạn. Ảnh: Gia Chính

A firefighter climbs to an apartment to save people stuck inside the building on fire in Hanoi's Thanh Xuan District, September 13, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh

An inspection team from the Ministry of Construction confirmed that most of the victims died due to smoke.

According to the team, the building has a skylight and when the fire broke out, smoke and fire followed the ventilation upward and got into apartments through the windows.

"Therefore, most of the rooms in the apartment were contaminated with smoke. Especially on the 4th floor, there was an apartment heavily burned as fire followed the ventilation and penetrated through the window," said Vu Ngoc Anh, head of the Science, Technology and Environment Department under the Construction Ministry.

As concluded by the ministry’s inspectors, it is the loose management of local authorities that have led to a series of violations at the apartment building.

"All violations related to licensing construction and ensuring safety conditions are responsibilities of local authorities in Thanh Xuan District," said Anh.

Dang Hong Thai, the district’s former vice chairman, who signed the decision to licensing construction of the building, said the district had later found out that the owner violated construction rules and issued a statement to suspend the project.

Khuong Dinh Commune, where the building is located, was tasked with handling the violation.

Thai said he "I signed the decision to suspend the project eight years ago, and the authorities in Khuong Dinh Commune were assigned to implement coercive measures."

"What happened after that decision must be reviewed," he said.

Lack of skills

Lieutenant Pham Truong Tuan Anh who is in charge of the search and rescue at the fire scene, said most of the victims were found dead along the stairs from the seventh floor to higher floors.

"It is possible that many people ran downstairs to escape but the fire and smoke grew stronger, forcing them to ran backwards to the rooftop, hoping to escape. Yet there were too many people stuck at the staircase at the same time, and as the space is too narrow, they were left in panic, resulting in the tragedy."

Rescuers said many people locked themselves in bathrooms and die of smoke inhalation. Others crawled under the bed, hid in the closet, and jumped down from high floors, leading to death or serious injuries.

According to fire prevention experts, the most basic principle in a building fire is to avoid smoke and high temperatures.

If the possibility of running out of the building down the stairs is small, people must stay calm, evaluate a safe plan to avoid smoke and find an emergency escape route such as a window, balcony/loggia.

People need to close and seal the door with wet clothes, remove all flammable objects away from the door, then go to any open place that is exposed to the air and wait there if there is no rope ladder.

If that open area is also filled with smoke from below, then people must go back in and seal the space to avoid smoke from entering.

Among cases in which some of the residents were able to save themselves and their families, Nguyen Cong Huy, 41, used a rope ladder to climb down from his apartment on the third floor. Huy had always got the ladder ready in the apartment for any emergency cases.

Firefighters then followed the rope ladder to the fifth floor to save four more people of one family.

On Friday, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh issued a statement requesting a general review and inspection of fire prevention and fighting in all types of apartment buildings across the country.

The Construction Ministry has been assigned to supplement fire prevention and fighting standards for mini apartments, and soon amend regulations and standards for building houses.

According to statistics from Hanoi Power Corporation, the whole city has about 2,000 mini apartments, while HCMC police said Friday that the city currently has around 42,200 mini-apartments for rent that harbor many risks.

Mini-apartment buildings, which are popular in big and crowded cities like Hanoi and HCMC, are those that comprise many small apartments that share the same stairs and elevators.

Firefighters rescue people from an apartment block fire in Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi, September 13, 2023. Video by VnExpress/Gia Chinh

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