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Welders arrested in Chinese Christmas fire

By
KATHERINE ARMS

HONG KONG, Dec. 28 -- Chinese investigators concluded stray sparks from a welding torch caused the fire that killed 309 people on Christmas night in a Luoyang shopping center in central China's Henan province, according to the official news agency Xinhua Thursday.

"The fire was caused by welder Wang Chengtai's operation in violation of regulations, according to an investigation team of experts from the Ministry of Public Security and provincial public security department," said the agency.

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Four welders, illegally employed by a Taiwan investor, were working in the basement of the commercial building and started the fire when sparks fell on furniture and cloth. When they failed to extinguish the flames with water they fled the scene without reporting the fire, said Xinhua.

The four were apprehended on Wednesday morning and confessed to breaking the law. The agency said eight others were also being held who were at the building at the time of the blaze and gave authorities false testimony.

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji on Wednesday ordered that those responsible for the fire be severely punished. Chinese state television said that about 20 people were put under "surveillance and control", which means though they had not been charged their movements would be strictly monitored.

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At the Luoyang Hotel hundreds of relatives and friends gathered to obtain any information about the dead and to register missing loved ones that might have perished. Angry relatives demanded access to their loved ones to pay their last respects after they were told they would not be allowed to see them immediately.

"They haven't told us anything. Here it is already three days after the fire, and they haven't given us a report. We should at least be allowed to see our son but they won't even let us go and confirm for ourselves that he has died," said one grieving father according to the South China Morning Post on Thursday.

Xinhua said relatives began identifying the dead on Tuesday evening and that many had been carrying identification cards. It said hospitals photographed the dead and would post the pictures at four of Luoyang's hotels where the government has set up temporary offices to deal with the victim's families.

"The local government transferred more than 100 doctors from 15 districts to help with the dead, and dozens of photographs of each victim were taken for identification purposes. The bodies of the dead have been sent to a local crematorium to await identification,' said the official China Daily newspaper on Thursday.

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The tragedy has focused public attention on China's shoddy building safety codes, which few builders or building managers adhere to. With sweeping economic reforms and plans for expansion buildings in China go up at a record pace. But rampant corruption and the push to turn small neighborhoods into tall office blocks and shopping malls that could compete with Western standards has left the idea of safety codes back on the blueprints.

In a move to prevent further tragedies as the Chinese New Year approaches the Ministry of Public Security released an urgent notice on Tuesday declaring all dance halls and discos operating without licenses or fire safety systems to be shut down. It said public buildings such as hospitals; shopping arcades and schools should be inspected for possible safety problems.

The notice said local governments should "spare no efforts to ensure safety during the New Year's Day and the Spring Festival Holidays", which fall at the end of January.

Xinhua said the Dongdu commercial buildings' managers had been warned about safety breaches for the past three years and that the disco was operating without a license.

The Dongu Disco on the fourth floor of the building was where most died on Christmas night. The dance hall had no emergency exits and reports said it had failed a safety inspection the week before. As smoke billowed up from the basement, those in the dimly-let disco had no notice that there was an emergency until it was too late. The building had no fire alarms or water sprinklers.

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Some ran for emergency exits in the building only to find they were blocked by merchandise. Only a few managed to jump from broken windows onto air mats placed below by fire fighters.

Of the seven injured suffering from smoke inhalation, one has been released from the hospital and six others are being kept for further treatment, said the news agency. Survivors said about 90 people had made their way out of the building to the street below but officials said about 60 had escaped the disaster.

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