Hong Kong police probe deadly market blaze

HONG KONG - Hong Kong police said Thursday they are investigating a suspected arson attack on a popular tourist market that left nine killed, dozens injured and hundreds more in need of emergency assistance.

Officials said more than 400 people had registered for government aid after the blaze in the early hours of Wednesday destroyed a large section of the Ladies' Market and dozens of apartments in Kowloon's Mongkok district.

Around 40 survivors took shelter in a community centre overnight Wednesday as police continued to scour the scene for evidence, amid reports that residents heard an argument in the narrow street before the fire broke out.

"The Fire Services Department initially believed that there were suspicious circumstances and has set up a team to investigate the cause of the fire and the reason for it causing heavy casualties," Security Secretary Ambrose S.K. Lee's office said in a statement.

A police spokesman appealed to the public for information but refused to comment further on the incident, the second of its kind in a year in Mongkok's Fa Yuen Street.

"After the fire was put out, it was believed that the fire was of suspicious origin," he said.

Fire fighters at the scene said the blaze broke out simultaneously among hawker stalls at either end of the market shortly before dawn. The Ladies Market is popular with shoppers seeking cheap clothes, toys and accessories.

Fuelled by fabrics and plastic goods stored in the market and in stair wells, the inferno quickly spread to the crowded apartments above, where residents were sleeping.

Many of the victims died of suspected smoke inhalation in a single stairwell that appeared to have been blocked. Several survivors said they ran to the roof because escape exits were blocked or already full of smoke.

Officials have pointed the blame at market traders for ignoring stringent fire regulations put in place after a fire on the same street last year destroyed dozens of stalls and injured several people.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang said enforcement of fire regulations was insufficient, and set up a task force to examine the fire danger.

But Food and Health Secretary Dr. York Chow said "all the warnings and regulations are actually in place".

"In case this is still relating to the (noncompliance) of operators, we have to see what type of more stringent regulation needs to be considered," he told reporters.