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01 December 2011

Nine killed in Hong Kong tower fire


A fireman looks down while descending a fire ladder at the scene of a burning residential tower in Hong Kong on November 30, 2011. Ambulances rushed the injured to nearby hospitals as firefighters battled to put out the blaze, which started before dawn at a stall in the Ladies Market in the Mong Kok area of Kowloon - AFP

A fire believed to be the work of an arsonist engulfed a Hong Kong residential block and popular tourist market early Wednesday, killing nine people and injuring 30, police said.

Ambulances rushed the injured to hospital as firefighters battled to put out the blaze, which started before dawn at a stall in the Ladies Market in the Mongkok area of Kowloon.

"Nine people died and 30 people have been sent to hospital for treatment so far," an emergency services spokeswoman said, adding five of the injured were in critical condition.

The narrow market street was a wall of flame and thick black smoke as the fire tore through the flimsy stalls and residential flats above, witnesses said.

Local television showed firemen pulling shaken survivors and body bags from rooftops, while badly burnt victims were wrapped in bandages and sent to hospital.

Residents fled in their pyjamas or called out to firemen from windows as the fire raged through the market below.

The blaze broke out at a street hawker's booth around 4:40 am and quickly spread through the residential building, officials said.

Eight "charred bodies" were found at the site, the spokeswoman said. Officials later increased the toll to nine.

The fire was believed to be the work of an arsonist, an official spokesman said, adding however that investigations were ongoing.

A suspected arson attack destroyed dozens of stalls in the same market last year. Six people including a firefighter were injured in that incident.

A hotline was set up to help people search for missing or injured loved ones.

A local resident said the building where many of the victims lived had been subdivided into small living spaces known as cubicles.

A fire at a subdivided apartment building in Kowloon killed four people earlier this year, prompting calls from some lawmakers for a ban on cubicle flats.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang rejected the calls, acknowledging that rocketing apartment prices left many people with no option but to live in overcrowded, unsafe buildings.

"Undoubtedly 'sub-divided units' pose risks for building safety, but they do provide accommodation for low-income people not eligible for public housing," he said in an October policy address.

"Banning 'sub-divided units' across the board is therefore not a solution."

The Ladies Market at Fa Yuen Street is popular with tourists looking for cheap deals on items such as clothing, toys and mobile phone accessories.

- AFP