HK police seek two over deadly market blaze

HONG KONG - Hong Kong police said Friday they are seeking two men seen at a popular tourist market shortly before a blaze broke out that left nine people dead and highlighted the city's deepening housing crisis.

A spokesman said police wanted to interview two men spotted on CCTV footage as they "walked by the scene prior to the breakout of the fire" in the Ladies' Market of Kowloon district before dawn on Wednesday.

Firefighters said the blaze erupted simultaneously at both ends of the market, a popular place for locals and tourists to look for cheap deals on everything from curtains to clothes and mobile phone accessories.

Flames and deadly smoke quickly engulfed the narrow street and leapt into tightly packed residential apartments above, catching people in their sleep. Residents reportedly heard an argument in the street before the fire erupted.

Many of the victims died in a single stairwell that appeared to have been blocked, raising questions about the enforcement of fire regulations in the autonomous southern Chinese city of seven million people.

"We are now reviewing very seriously how additional measures could be adopted to enhance the management and public safety of these street stalls and to protect the rights of residents nearby," Chief Secretary Stephen Lam said.

Residents said fire escapes that should have been open and clearly marked were blocked or hidden because of illegal storage of goods and haphazard subdivisions of flats into tiny living spaces known as cubicles.

"I no longer want to live in cubicles, especially those with hawker stalls below," said Wong Kam-hoi, one of more than 400 people who has registered for government help in the aftermath of the inferno.

Cubicle residents who rent rooms the size of prison cells complain that the government has done too little to address skyrocketing housing costs in a city that boasts one of the widest wealth gaps in the world.

Top officials acknowledge that cubicle-style subdivisions create fire traps but have rejected calls to ban them, acknowledging that many Hong Kong residents have no other place to live.

Lam said officials would meet Friday to consider recommendations for "enhancing public safety and for dealing with sub-partitioned units in apartment buildings".

The government has promised to build more public housing but experts say the forecast pace of development is not enough to meet demand from low-income workers and the underprivileged.