Garlay Building in HK
Garlay Building in HK
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Garley Building Fire

The death toll in Hong Kong's worst building fire rose to 39 yesterday, as it was revealed that a welder's spark was most probably to blame for the inferno at a Yau Ma Tei shop and office complex.

The blaze ripped through the 16-floor Garley Commercial Building after fully sealed windows at a ground-floor department store acted like a "pressure cooker" that sent flames soaring up through the premises, a senior fire services official said.

Another 81 people were injured in the blaze that was finally put out at 1.47pm yesterday - 21 hours after it began.

Of the dead, 22 were in a workshop run by Chow Sang Sang Jewellery that occupied two rooms on the 15th floor where most of the charred bodies were found. Other remains were found on the 13th and 14th floors.

Workers at the Garley Building in Yau Ma Tei told yesterday of their narrow escape from the inferno.

Maggie Chan, who ran a fashion wholesale company on the 12th floor of the building, said she did not react immediately when she smelled something burning before 5 pm Wednesday as she was told it was normal.

"This made me less alert to the risk of a fire," she said.

The staircase outside her office was full of smoke by the time she realised the building was on fire.

She was rescued with five other colleagues by firemen on a crane after being trapped in her office for about 45 minutes.

...I recall the young man sitting quietly all alone in the mortuary when all around him were emotional people venting their frustration for an unbearable loss. I asked him if I could help him. He handed me the medical records of his wife. Then he burst into tears explaining that his wife, who worked in the top-floor jewellery factory had phoned him, explained that floor was on fire and asked him what to do. He had told her not to panic and to wait for the fire brigade. They then had what was to be their last conversation, she fell unconscious while he was still talking to her. He looked up at me and asked if he had given the right advice or should he have told her to run like hell. I did my best to reassure and comfort the young man.

— Kowloon West Senior Police Superintendent Chan Chin-cheung

Welding was revealed to be the source of the fire. At the time of the fire, the Garley Building was undergoing internal renovation, during which new elevators were to be installed. One had been completely refurbished, with another almost completed; the other two elevator shafts in the building had had their elevators removed, and bamboo scaffolding installed within the shaft. The fire-resistant elevator doors were also removed to allow light into the elevator shaft for the welders.

The welding activity routinely triggered alarms from the building's smoke detectors, so much so that staff at the China Arts & Crafts store that occupied the bottom three floors had wrapped plastic around the fire alarms to muffle the sound. Furthermore, workers were found to have cut metal with a welder, contrary to building codes. Thus, when a stray piece of hot metal fell from the thirteenth floor, sparking a fire in the second floor lift lobby, no one paid much attention, believing that it was part of the normal welding activity. A welder discovered the fire, and alerted the fire department. A second emergency call would be made one minute later, when a dental assistant on the 13th floor discovered dense smoke in the hallway.

When firefighters first arrived at the scene ten minutes after the lower fire had started, the fire was rated at one-alarm. It was almost immediately raised to three-alarm when heavy smoke impeded firefighters' process up higher floors. By the time reinforcements arrived, it was upgraded to five-alarm, the highest level in Hong Kong.

The fire consumed the bamboo scaffolding; the open elevator shaft provided a source of fresh air, creating a chimney effect that eventually rose to the 13th floor, starting another fire there. Charred human remains were found on the 13th and 14th floors. A workshop run by Chow Sang Sang Jewellery that occupied two rooms on the 15th floor had 22 bodies.