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Hong Kong police probe deadly market blaze

Officials said more than 400 people had registered for government aid after the blaze. -AFP

Thu, Dec 01, 2011

HONG KONG - Hong Kong police said Thursday they are investigating a suspected arson attack on a popular tourist market that left nine people dead, dozens injured and hundreds 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 crowded Mong Kok 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 Mong Kok's Fa Yuen Street.

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

Firefighters 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 stairwells, 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 finger at market traders for ignoring fire regulations put in place after a blaze on the same street last year - in another case of suspected arson - destroyed dozens of stalls and injured several people.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang said that 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.

Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene Clement Leung said the government would look at introducing stiffer penalties for non-compliance with fire regulations.

"We are all shocked by the tragedy," he said.

Mong Kok is one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods on earth, and some of the apartments that caught fire were subdivided into tiny living spaces known as cubicles.

Cubicle residents who rent rooms the size of prison cells complain that the government has done too little to address skyrocketing housing costs in the southern Chinese city of seven million people.

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

"Cubicles are certainly a problem. The government should build more public estates to accommodate people, then we will be safe," said one survivor, who identified himself only as Lee.

He said he rented a 100 square-foot (9.3 square-metre) cubicle on Fa Yuen Street for HK$3,000 (S$500) a month. His flat was destroyed in the fire.

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