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November 17, 2010

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Welders are blamed for inferno as 8 in custody

SHANGHAI police yesterday detained eight people, including unlicensed welders, on suspicion of accidentally starting the fire that engulfed a downtown residential building killing at least 53 people.

A preliminary investigation showed that four welders improperly operating their equipment caused Monday's fire in Jing'an District, the city government said.

Police investigating the disaster said that eight people had been detained, but did not identify them.

The search and clearing up operation was due to end last night.

However, local authorities are still trying to determine how many residents were in the building when the fire broke out and the number of missing people, reported Xinhua news agency.

Of around 70 injured at local hospitals, 15 are in a critical condition. Li Weiping, vice director of Shanghai Health Bureau, warned the death toll could rise.

Those who lost their homes in the blaze or were evacuated from nearby blocks are being temporarily accommodated in 16 nearby hotels.

Frustration grew yesterday among relatives seeking answers to how such a tragedy, which occurred during work to clad the block in insulating material, could happen.

"The drills on TV are successful, but when a fire really happens, it's just useless. We feel helpless," said a woman who gave only her surname, Liu. She said her mother lived on the ninth floor and died in the fire.

"There must be something illegal in the materials, though we don't know. I am waiting for the government's explanation," Liu said.

Chen Fei, director of the Shanghai Fire Control Bureau, said sparks from improperly used welders' tools ignited inflammable materials on scaffolding around the 10th floor of the 28-storey building.

The scaffolding was paved with bamboo boards and surrounded by nylon netting - both highly flammable - which led to the fire spreading quickly, Chen explained.

"When we arrived, the whole building was burning just like a blocked chimney, and it was not easy for us to get to the fire," he added.

It is also more difficult for people to escape from residential buildings compared to office skyscrapers, said Chen. There are more old people and children, and security doors in homes slow evacuation, he added.

However, Chen failed to explain how a fire outside the building could spread inside so quickly.

The fire, the worst in the city in recent years, took more than four hours to extinguish, as 1,300 firefighters and 122 fire engines attended.

The 85-meter-high building at the intersection of Jiaozhou Road and Yuyao Road was home to more than 156 households with 440 people. Residents moved into the building in March 1998.

A local expert from Tongji University said the insulation layer which workers were laying is highly flammable.

"The project has not been carried out on a large scale due to limited budget and inconvenience to residents," he said.

The Jing'an District government has put up 30 million yuan (US$4.5 million) for the work, according to the 21st Century Business Herald.

The expert also said many workers flout fire safety rules.

A resident who lived on 13th floor told Shanghai Daily that workers on the project often discarded cigarette butts around them. "It's very dangerous," said the resident.

The renovation project was carried out by Jing'an Construction Group and Shanghai Jiayi Decoration Company. Both companies confirmed that their bosses were taken away by police for questioning.

An insider said both companies are licensed but supply work to sub-contractors who may not be.

Construction sites in Jing'an have been closed for the time being.


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