Survivor of deadly Saigon tower blaze: 'We could not breathe'

By Duy Tran, Quoc Thang   March 22, 2018 | 11:18 pm PT
Survivor of deadly Saigon tower blaze: 'We could not breathe'
A blaze at Carina Plaza in Ho Chi Minh City killed 13 people and injured 28 early on March 23, 2018. Photo by VnExpress
Survivors said the fire alarms did not go off, and the fire doors had been wedged open.

A fire that killed 13 people at an apartment building in Ho Chi Minh City early on Friday left many survivors shaking as they recalled the moments they thought they were dead.

Le Thi Thanh Truc, 37, said that her husband yelled “FIRE!” at around 1 a.m. as their apartment was filling with smoke.

He grabbed their daughter and pulled her out of their third-floor apartment.

“We could not breath, the smoke was very thick,” Truc said.

People were running all over the place, covering their faces with wet towels to avoid suffocating, she said.

As they tried to run down the stairs to the ground floor, the heat and smoke forced them back.

“It was chaotic. Everyone was running around helplessly and screaming,” Truc recalled.

Shortly after, she lost sight of her husband and daughter.

Truc escaped after finding a rope ladder attached to one of the balconies. A man helped her climb down and she later found her family. “We were all lucky,” she said.

Her neighbors said there was a “stampede” as hundreds tried to flee.

Five people died from suffocation on her floor.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Loan, who lived on the first floor, also managed to survive the blaze.

Loan said she noticed the smoke only because she had decided to turn off the AC the previous night and open the windows.

“When we got to the ground floor, black smoke engulfed us, and I thought we were going to suffocate to death,” Loan said.

Her family had to run back up and found a ladder on a balcony.

The fire started at Carina Plaza in District 8 at around 1.15 a.m. on Friday, just seven hours after residents held a meeting with the building's managers about fire risks, saying that guards in the parking lots often smoked, and that the elevator panels were overheating.

Police said at least 13 people were killed and 28 others injured. Among the victims were two boys of three and five years old. A woman also died after slipping from the 19th floor, and two others from the 12th floor.

Hundreds could be seen standing on high balconies, waving flashlights and screaming for help from fire trucks on the ground. Many people on the second and third floors jumped for their lives.

Le Thi Vang, 50, who jumped from the second floor, said: “We had to take a risk.”

She said the floor was so hot they couldn't run across it, but if they'd stayed, they would have suffocated.

No alarms

An initial investigation has found problems regarding fire safety in the building.

Many survivors said they were alerted by the heavy smoke, not the fire alarms that should have gone off.

The automatic sprinklers in the building also failed to deploy, and the emergency lighting did not turn on, leaving residents stranded in the smoke.

The fire started from a motorbike in a basement parking lot where there were more than a thousand motorbikes and dozens of cars. Two charred bodies were found in the lot.

Fire police inspects the parking lot where cars and motorbikes have been burned down to frames. Photo by VnExpress

Fire police inspect the parking lot where cars and motorbikes were burnt to a shell. Photo by VnExpress

“We have not ruled out the possibility of the explosion being set off deliberately because it was very loud,” said Phan Anh Minh, deputy director of the city’s police.

“But that could have been the gas tank exploding,” he said.

Bricks were wedged in the fire doors designed to stop smoke from flying up to the residential floors, police said.

“Most of the victims died from suffocation,” Nguyen Thanh Huong, the city’s fire police chief, said at a meeting on Friday.

Police are investigating who was responsible for wedging the bricks in the fire doors, and if they intended any harm.

The fire is one of the deadliest in the city’s history, only surpassed by a blaze that killed 60 people at the six-story International Trade Center in October 2002.

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