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April 14, 2010

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Tower fire raises safety concern

THE early-morning lightning bolt that struck the Oriental Pearl Tower yesterday, engulfing the top of Shanghai's iconic building in flames, may have been a spectacular sight, but it highlighted a glaring safety issue.

The city's emergency fire ladders extend to 50 meters - hardly effective in buildings like the tower which is 468m high.

Other Shanghai buildings are much taller and would pose a nightmare for rescue workers in a major fire.

The director of the city's rescue-helicopter team believes he has the solution. Guo Yonghua said the four helicopters in service were not enough to meet the city's full emergency response requirements.

"What Shanghai needs most is a heavy-duty, professional, multi-task helicopter for fire emergencies," Guo said. "The city has so many high-rises, making rescue preparedness essential."

Even the largest of the four helicopters did not have the power to carry water tanks and other heavy fire-fighting equipment, Guo said.

Thanks to the rain early yesterday, the tower flames were doused in an hour.

The fire burnt out the lightning rod but caused no injuries and did not damage the broadcasting system.

Zhou Meiliang, an official with the Shanghai Fire Control Bureau, said it was a difficult job, as apart from the reach issue, there was almost no space for firefighters to climb to the top of the tower.

"At most one firefighter is able to climb onto the tower, carrying an extinguisher which is hardly appropriate for a blaze of that magnitude," Zhou said.

An engineer, who refused to reveal his name but claimed to have experience working at the tower, said on that the lightning rod had not been checked or repaired for "about 15 years."

The engineer said the tower used a lightning rod made of material that, when aged, was prone to catch fire.

However, Cai Qi, an official with the Shanghai Oriental Pearl Co, said the "so-called engineer" had no credibility.

"We just checked and upgraded the lightning rod last month," Cai said.

He said the fire, caused by lightning, was purely an accident and strategies to prevent a recurrence were in hand.


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