On Tuesday evening, a fire ravaged a building in an alley on Khuong Ha Street in Hanoi’s Thanh Xuan district, killing 56 people and injuring 37 others. Among the victims, 10 were children.
This is the deadliest fire in Vietnam in the past 21 years since the ITC shopping center in Ho Chi Minh City killed 60 people in 2002.
A day after the Hanoi fire, the building’s owner, Nghiem Quang Minh, 44, was arrested and is currently being investigated for violating fire safety rules.
Eight years ago, Minh obtained a permit to build a house on an area of 240 m².
Thanh Xuan district allowed him to build a six-story house.
However, Minh transformed the project into a 10-story mini-building, with four to five apartments on each floor, and sold it to 45 families.
“The apartment owner circumvented the law and applied for a permit to build a house less than seven stories so that the building would not have to be inspected for fire prevention design and fighting equipment against fires,” said Bui Xuan Thai, an expert from the Vietnam Fire and Rescue Association.
According to current regulations on fire safety techniques, buildings with seven floors or more must have a fire prevention certificate, which requires that they have two escape routes and certain equipment for preventing and extinguishing fire if necessary.
In fact, the ten-story building is built in the style of a “tube house,” meaning it only has one exit at the front while the other three sides are completely enclosed.
The ten-story building in Thanh Xuan district that caught fire on September 13, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh
The entire building has only one emergency exit, namely a staircase.
A building safety officer said the fire started from an electrical outlet in the first floor parking lot and then spread to the upper floors, making it impossible to access and rescue people. from this staircase.
The other escape and rescue route was the apartment balconies, but most of them were fenced with stainless steel iron bars, because residents were afraid of burglars.
Some apartments do not have bars, but are locked from the inside or do not have stairs to go down from the fire escape.
Rescuers said it took at least five to 10 minutes to break through the iron bars and enter the apartments.
The building is located in a narrow alley only three meters wide, making it difficult for firefighters to approach.
Fifteen fire trucks were dispatched to the scene but had to stop approximately 400 meters from the fire. Firefighters had to use hoses to deliver water from tanks to the fire and use small ladders to climb and fight the fire.
According to fire prevention regulations, residential buildings with more than seven floors must guarantee access to roads for fire trucks so that they cannot park more than 10 m away and the building itself even must be equipped with fire hydrants.
Joining rescuers at the scene, Nguyen Van Dai, a member of the First Aid Support Angel volunteer group, said he saw many bodies on the stairs and in front of many apartments.
Dai said the stairs are narrow, spanning only 1.5m wide, making rescue and escape difficult. “Those who escape via balconies always have a greater chance of survival than by other means,” he said.
A firefighter climbs into an apartment to rescue people trapped inside the burning building in Thanh Xuan district of Hanoi, September 13, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh
An inspection team from the Ministry of Construction confirmed that most of the victims died due to smoke.
According to the team, the building has a skylight and when the fire broke out, smoke and fire followed the ventilation upwards and entered the apartments through the windows.
“As a result, most of the rooms in the apartment were contaminated by smoke. Especially on the 4th floor, one apartment was badly burned because the fire followed the ventilation and entered through the window,” said Vu Ngoc Anh, director from the Department of Science and Technology. and environment under the Ministry of Construction.
As the ministry’s inspectors concluded, it was the loose management of local authorities that led to a series of violations in the building.
“All violations related to construction permits and ensuring safety conditions are the responsibility of local authorities in Thanh Xuan district,” Anh said.
Dang Hong Thai, former vice president of the district, who signed the decision allowing construction of the building, said the district later discovered that the owner had violated construction rules and issued a statement to suspend the project.
Khuong Dinh commune, where the building is located, was tasked with handling the violation.
Thai said: “I signed the decision to suspend the project eight years ago and the Khuong Dinh commune authorities were tasked with implementing enforcement measures.”
“What happened after this decision needs to be re-examined,” he said.
Lack of skills
Lt. Pham Truong Tuan Anh, in charge of search and rescue at the fire scene, said most of the victims were found dead on the stairs from the seventh floor to the upper floors.
“It is possible that many people ran downstairs to escape, but the fire and smoke intensified, forcing them to run backwards towards the roof, hoping to escape. Yet there had too many people stuck on the stairs at the same time, and because the space was too narrow, they panicked, which caused a tragedy.”
Rescuers said many people locked themselves in toilets and died from smoke inhalation. Others crawled under the bed, hid in the closet and jumped from upper floors, resulting in death or serious injury.
According to fire prevention experts, the most fundamental principle during a building fire is to avoid smoke and high temperatures.
If the possibility of running out of the building via stairs is low, people should remain calm, evaluate a safety plan to avoid smoke and find an emergency exit such as a window, balcony/loggia.
People should close and seal the door with wet clothes, remove all flammable objects from the door, then go to any open area exposed to air and wait there if there is no rope ladder.
If this open area is also filled with smoke from below, then people should go back in and seal the space to prevent smoke from entering.
Among the cases in which some residents were able to save themselves and their families was Nguyen Cong Huy, 41, who used a rope ladder to descend from his third-floor apartment. Huy always had the ladder ready in the apartment in case of emergency.
Firefighters then followed the rope ladder up to the fifth floor to rescue four other people from the same family.
On Friday, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh issued a statement calling for a general review and inspection of fire prevention and fighting in all types of apartment buildings across the country.
The Ministry of Construction has been instructed to complete the fire prevention and fire fighting standards for mini apartments and to amend the regulations and standards for house construction in the near future.
According to statistics from Hanoi Power Corporation, the entire city has around 2,000 mini-apartments, while HCMC police said on Friday that the city currently has around 42,200 mini-apartments for rent which carry many risks.
Mini apartment buildings, popular in large, crowded cities like Hanoi and HCMC, are those that include many small apartments sharing the same stairs and elevators.