The Christmas evening conflagration that killed 309 people in
central China's Henan Province has prompted President Jiang Zemin
to demand severe punishments for those responsible. But it is not
clear whether that will be enough to bring about fire-safety
measures that could prevent the recurrence of such a disaster.
Lack of smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinklers, or emergency
exits is often the norm in China, despite periodic government fire-
safety campaigns - usually begun in the wake of a major disaster.
The Monday night blaze in a Luoyang City shopping and
entertainment complex was thought to have begun in faulty
electrical wiring two floors below ground level, but the more than
200 Christmas revelers in a fourth-floor discotheque were not
warned in time. Dozens of ambulances from the city's hospitals
lined up outside in vain, as only seven people were able to escape
the building by shattering windows and jumping to air mattresses
below. Other victims were mostly construction workers who had been
finishing renovations on a different floor.
The Luoyang fire was the country's most destructive in four
years, but high death tolls are still not uncommon in China.
Entertainment centers, shopping malls, and apartment blocks
throughout the country frequently lack alarm systems and typically
padlock all exits, save one where a guard is present. At night,
even in dormitories and apartment towers, doors will be locked for
security reasons with the only key in the hands of a doorman. Only
some of the buildings put up in recent years are equipped with fire
detection and prevention systems.
A cinema blaze in May killed 74 patrons when none could kick down
the theater doors, locked to deter sneaks. That accident also
occurred in Henan Province, China's most populous.
The government metes out heavy penalties up to life imprisonment
as punishment for those deemed responsible in high-profile
tragedies, such as the Henan blaze in May, but serious attention to
fire prevention is difficult to come by where local officials often
work hand-in-glove with proprietors.
Official state media reported that several people had been
arrested in connection with Monday's fire, and that about 20
suspects are under "close surveillance."
The owners of Luoyang complex had been warned about the
building's poor fire-safety facilities beginning in 1997, state
media said. …