Stranded in Hanoi's burning apartment, family of five has horrific night

By Hai Hien, Quynh Nguyen   September 16, 2023 | 04:40 pm PT
Stranded in Hanoi's burning apartment, family of five has horrific night
The reunion of Hung’s family at Bach Mai Hospital, Hanoi after the fire, on September 14, 2023. Photo by Nguyen Hanh
Vu Viet Hung was sleeping last Tuesday night, when suddenly the air conditioner shut down and all the alarm lights went off.

After hearing someone yelling that there was a fire, he hurriedly called his family awake.

The 40-year-old man told everyone to cover their noses and mouths with a soaked towel, duck down, and make their way to the entrance. He led them out of Room 702 and down the stairs to get out of the apartment block in an alley off Khuong Ha Street in Hanoi's Thanh Xuan District.

On Tuesday night, a fire engulfed the apartment block , 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.

Seeing the large cloud of black smoke downstairs, Hung realized that they could not leave that way, and he decided to bring his family up to the rooftop.

"At this point, everything was dark ahead. We walked up for a bit before we heard someone yelled ‘this way is blocked!’ I was afraid that someone in my family would get lost if we continued to stay outside, so I led them all back inside our apartment," Hung said.

On the way back, two of their neighbors, a young man and a 13-year-old girl, sought shelter with them.

To prevent more smoke from entering the apartment, Hung and the young man covered the door cracks with water-soaked blankets and urged everyone to move away from the hallway and towards the open window.

Hung continuously blew the smoke out of the apartment while the others draped themselves with blankets to prevent them from inhaling smoke.

When Hung noticed the signal from the firefighters, he used a flashlight to signal back and shouted: "We’re in Room 702!"

"At that moment, there was no smoke flying up, so I opened another window to get some oxygen and call for help," Hung explains.

In the next two hours, he constantly reassured his family. Every five minutes, he would call each person’s name to make sure they are all there and checked if they are all right, while he sat next to the window to listen to the instructions of the firefighters down below.

An hour after the fire started, Hung was informed by the firefighters that the toxic gas has traveled up to all the windows. Every time the blankets or towels began to dry up, they would soak them with water again and use it to cover themselves. With the lack of oxygen and the amount of smoke gradually forming a thick fog in the room, there were several times when Hung felt desperate.

"I once considered tying the blankets together to form a rope so that everyone could climb down, but it was too risky, so I abandoned that idea and waited for rescue," Hung said. "It was important for us to stay calm, even if death came for us."

Fortunately, aside from his wife having the occasional panic episode, everyone listened diligently to instructions. Hung kept on reassuring everyone and at times would crack open the window and shine a light out to signal for help.

After 2 a.m., the fire hose finally arrived at the doors of Room 702. "We’re saved!" Hung and everyone in the apartment burst out in joy.

When the fire was subdued, the seven of them were led down the stairs by the rescue workers and transported to the Bach Mai Hospital. Currently, all of their conditions are stable.

As Hung suffered from burns to the cornea and coughed up black phlegm, he was taken to the Respiratory Department to be treated. His wife was taken to the Neurology Department due to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Hung’s father is in the Cardiology Department, and his two children, a 9-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl, received treatment in the Pediatrics Department.

Hung reveals that all of the fire prevention and fighting skills that were taught to him annually by his company have helped save his life in this incident. After finding himself on the brink of life and death, the 40-year-old man advises everyone to arm themselves with these skills to protect their lives and others during fire incidents.

"My biggest relief is that everyone in my family is safe. However, I feel heartbroken every time I hear news about some of my neighbors who didn’t make it out," Hung says.

The 13-year-old girl that stayed with Hung’s family during this incident also survived. Unfortunately, in a cruel twist of fate, her entire family has perished in the fire.

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