|Christmas night fire
kills 311 in central China
28 December 2000
A Christmas night inferno in a four-storey
building has claimed at least 311 lives in Luoyang, the
capital of the central Chinese province of Henan. More than
50 other victims are being treated in hospital for burns
and smoke inhalation.
Located in Luoyang's commercial centre, the Dongdu Building
contained a major supermarket complex, as well as dozens
of smaller specialty retailers and offices. The top floor
housed an unlicensed but popular nightclub, which was hosting
a special Christmas disco on the night. The majority of
those killed were teenagers celebrating at the disco and
building workers refurbishing the supermarket. They were
trapped inside the building without means of escape.
According to reports by the local Chinese media, the fire
broke out at 9.35pm in one of the basement levels. Government
authorities have alleged the fire was started by "carelessness"
on the part of workers renovating the basement floors. Four
welders have confessed to sparking the fire according to
Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.
Whatever the immediate cause of the fire, the reason for
the high number of fatalities was the lack of safety standards
in the building. Without any sprinkler system, the fire
rapidly spread to the first and second floors. The building
had no fire alarms or smoke detectors, delaying the arrival
of emergency services and leaving people on the upper floors
unaware of the fire for some time.
Upon arriving on the scene, fire trucks were hindered from
deploying around the building by stalls on the streets and
sidewalks. The intensity of the blaze prevented firefighters
entering the lower floors while the ladders on some fire
trucks could not reach the upper windows.
According to the few survivors, panic set in as smoke filled
the upper floors. One survivor told Chinese television:
"When the fire broke out, the whole disco was in chaos.
I survived because my husband pushed me out onto a balcony".
She then jumped four stories onto air cushions.
This escape route was not available to most. The majority
of the windows were too small for people to pass through.
The emergency exit to the roof from the disco was locked.
Of two other exits, one was filled with smoke while the
other was concealed behind a bar. The elevators did not
work due to a power failure. On the third and second floors,
potential escape routes through corridors and exits were
blocked by construction material and merchandise.
By the time the blaze was extinguished at around 12.45am,
most people in the building had died from smoke inhalation.
Of those at the disco, it is thought that no more than a
dozen survived. Wang Wei-hong, who survived by staying close
to a broken window for fresh air, told the media: "Fireman
brought me and my friend out of the building after 1.00am
wearing oxygen masks. When we got outside, it was like stepping
into a field of dead bodies".
A local newspaper has alleged that the death toll must
be far higher as ticket sales would indicate that some 500
people were at the disco—not 200 as officially claimed.
The fire is the latest in the chain of tragedies arising
from China's frenzied development of free market capitalism
over the past 20 years. With close ties to the political
establishment, entrepreneurs—both foreign and local—have
enjoyed a business climate best summed up as "anything
goes" in relation to wages, working conditions, construction
standards, pollution controls and basic health and safety.
Every year thousands of Chinese are killed or maimed at
work or by unsafe buildings and infrastructure.
Due to industrialisation and the influx of rural immigrants
seeking employment, Chinese cities like Luoyang have more
than doubled in size, yet urban planning has been haphazard
at best. Earlier this month, in the southern city of Dongguan,
a building collapsed as its owners were adding two floors
to it, without authorisation or approval by qualified architects.
As is often the case, the building's owners were also the
local government officials.
Enforcement of fire safety codes has been equally lax.
The Dongdu Building in Luoyang had failed fire safety inspections
repeatedly over the past three years with the most recent
inspection reported to have been only last week. In 1997
it was ranked among the 40 most dangerous buildings in Henan
A Luoyang government official told Reuters that the building
management had been asked to make improvements. Nevertheless,
authorities did nothing to prevent the leasing of space
to the disco and other unlicensed operators.
The Chinese government appears distinctly alarmed at public
anger over the fire and is seeking to placate it. Orders
have been issued for snap inspections and the shutdown of
unsafe buildings and entertainment venues.
Police have already detained up to 12 people in connection
with the fire. According to Xinhua, the building manager
is among them, while the supermarket operator is being looked
for. It is highly likely, however, that those arrested will
simply be made scapegoats while little or nothing is done
to improve safety standards.
There have been a series of devastating fires in China.
In November 1994, 234 people died in a fire at a nightclub
in Fuxin, Liaoning province—the emergency exits had
been locked. One month later, 323 people attending a concert
hall were killed when it caught fire in Karamay, Xinjiang
At the time the government promised that action would be
taken to compel building developers and function operators
to adhere to fire safety codes. Six years on, the Luoyang
fire has exposed the fact that a shopping complex in the
centre of a provincial capital was operating without fire
alarms, proper fire escapes or adequate firefighting equipment.
Fires take a heavy toll in factories and workplaces, particularly
in the industrialised southern provinces that are the focus
of foreign direct investment. In many cases, factory owners
lock fire exits to stop theft or block them with stored
product. In one of the most recent blazes, eight young women
were killed in their factory in the Xiamen free trade zone
By the Chinese government's own statistics, there were
over 300,000 fires between 1993 and 1998, which killed 12,638
people and injured 22,382 more. Most occurred in privately
owned buildings. In the first three months of this year
alone, there were 36,832 fires or explosions, which claimed
Updated- 22 August, 2001
China jails 23 over disco
to Club Fires