Deadly Fire Shows Risks of China's Building Boom

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Aly Song / Reuters

Firefighters battle the fire at the apartment tower in Shanghai on Nov. 15, 2010. The blaze killed at least 53 people

A devastating fire in a Shanghai apartment tower this week has raised concerns about the safety risks of China's ongoing building boom. Authorities say that a spark from an unlicensed welder's torch ignited the blaze in the 28-story building on Monday. The fire raged for four hours and killed at least 53 people, with 47 still missing four days later.

"The accident should not have happened and could have been completely avoided," Luo Lin, director of the State Administration of Work Safety, said on Wednesday, according to the state-run Xinhua news service. The building, which was constructed in 1997 to house retired teachers, was wrapped in scaffolding as part of a project to install insulation. The procedure is common in China, where the government has ordered broad measures to improve energy efficiency. Insulation is frequently added to the outside of buildings and then covered with layers of paint.

Luo said that workers had been scrambling to finish work on the building, which was illegally covered with flammable nylon netting. The netting, which was intended to keep construction debris from falling on the street below, helped the fire expand quickly across several floors. Flammable insulation made from polyurethane may have also contributed to the destructiveness of the fire, according to state-media reports.

The fire was China's deadliest since 2004, when 53 people were killed in a supermarket fire in the northeastern city of Jilin, and has prompted a high-level response. China's State Council, the county's top administrative body, has ordered a national review of the enforcement of fire-safety regulations. So far, Shanghai police have arrested eight suspects in connection with the blaze, including an undisclosed number of welders, Xinhua reported.

China is in the midst of an epochal construction surge, with more than 2 billion square meters of new housing and offices erected last year. Shanghai has three dozen buildings over 200 m (656 ft.), and the Pudong district — just farmland as recently as the 1980s — now hosts one of the world's most iconic skylines. The average longevity of buildings here is less than half of that in the U.S., which means that structures are frequently being refurbished or demolished and rebuilt.

That building boom has coincided with a series of high-profile conflagrations and collapses. During Chinese New Year celebrations in February 2009, an unauthorized display of powerful fireworks ignited part of a complex that includes the new headquarters for CCTV, China's state broadcaster. The building, which was designed by Rem Koolhaas' OMA architecture firm, was intended to house a Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It had not yet been completed when the fireworks display ignited the building's open shell. One firefighter was killed. Last year a 13-story apartment building in Shanghai that was under construction toppled on its side, killing one worker. The collapse was blamed on loose soil and improper excavation around the building's foundation. Earlier this month, flames ignited by faulty wiring ripped through a five-story shopping mall, also in the city of Jilin, killing 19 people. The blaze burned for nearly half a day.

In Shanghai, Monday's fire was extinguished in four hours, but the effort was hampered by a lack of equipment. The building was 70 m (229 ft.) tall, but the standard ladder fire trucks in China are limited to 40 or 50 meters, says Li Guoqiang, a professor of civil engineering at Tongji University in Shanghai. (This week the city of Xi'an in central China announced that it would spend $3.8 million to purchase the world's tallest ladder truck, a Finnish model that can reach 101 m.) While helicopters were dispatched to the Shanghai fire to rescue people, they did not carry firefighting equipment, according to state-media reports. While such equipment would have obviously helped firefighters' efforts, more practical steps would also reduce the risk of future disasters, says Li. "We need better fire detection and warning systems as well as more fire hoses installed inside buildings," he says.

National and local officials, however, have defended the response, noting that some 1,300 firefighters and 45 vehicles participated. They were able to rescue 107 people from the building, said Luo of the State Administration of Work Safety. But images of residents and workers struggling to escape via the building's smoke-shrouded scaffolding have prompted a public airing of concerns that the enforcement of safety standards and firefighting capacity haven't kept pace with the building boom. Han Han, a prominent Shanghai novelist, witnessed the fire and later questioned the response in a post on his blog. "I believe Shanghai put all of its hardware for fighting fires in tall buildings on display," he wrote. "But I can only say it wasn't enough."

With reporting by Jessie Jiang