HONG KONG - The worst fire calamity to occur in this city since 1997 tore through a six-story, decades-old tenement building on Fa Yuen Street in Mong Kok before dawn on Wednesday.
It left at least nine people dead and 34 injured, including a 1-year-old toddler.
More than 200 firemen tried to rescue those in the building. After the blaze was extinguished, six charred bodies were found in the tenement's staircases. Forty-seven other residents were rescued.
Some climbed barefoot to the rooftop to wait to be rescued. Others used torches to send signals to firemen. Some of the injured waited six hours before help came.
The victims who died were sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Kwong Wah Hospital, Princess Margaret Hospital and Caritas Medical Center.
Six of the injured were reported to be in critical conditions. While some of them were being treated in intensive care units, their family members stood vigil outside, weeping, showing signs of agitation or sitting in silence. None were willing to speak to the press.
A man in his 60s whose surname is Tse waited outside the intensive care unit for his son, who was believed to have suffered from smoke inhalation, although he was not seriously burned.
"When my son was rescued from the fire, his face was completely black, his eyes utterly red, and he kept crying," Tse said.
Tse lives with his son and the son's girlfriend. At the time of the fire, the elder Tse was working a night shift and avoided harm. His son's girlfriend has not been found.
According to the Fire Services Department, the fire was deemed to be a No 3 alarm when it broke out at a vendor stall at about 4:40 am. It spread to adjacent residential buildings shortly afterward.
Television clips show thick smoke rising to the building's upper floors. Cries of "help" were heard constantly.
The fire was deemed a No 4 alarm at 6:09 am. It continued to burn for nearly eight hours and was only extinguished at noon.
Zhao Minghong, who lived four buildings away from the burning building, said she woke up at 4:30 am with her son and husband.
"When we arrived on the ground at 4:50 am, I could still see that some other residents, who were living on the fifth or sixth floor of the burning areas, were still in their apartments. They didn't seem afraid," Zhao said.
"If they had run at that time, they would have got to a safe place. But the fire got worse later, and, for some, it was too late. Firefighters blocked the stairs (to prevent the fire from spreading further). Residents had to run upstairs to the roof to wait to be rescued," Zhao said.
Zhao said she heard several thunderous banging noises. She noticed the fire had started in a place where various hawkers have set up stalls to sell curtains, stuffed animals, sweaters and other goods that are highly combustible.
She saw the fire spread to the upper floors within half an hour. She said there were explosions inside the burning buildings and clouds of smoke billowed out following the blasts.
Szeto Yat-san, a deputy chief fire officer, said a preliminary investigation did not rule out the possibility that the fire was caused by arson, especially since both sides of the stall thought to be the origin of the calamity had caught ablaze at the same time.
Szeto also said the rescue work had been difficult. He said only further investigation can determine why the fire could claim so many victims.
At least 359 households were affected by the fire. The residents have registered at a help desk set up by the Yau Tsim Mong District Office and the Social Welfare Department, near the fire scene.
A special investigation panel has been set up for the investigation. The case has been handed over to the Kowloon West Regional Crime Unit for further investigation.
Donald Tsang, Hong Kong chief executive, said he was "depressed and shocked" by the incident, adding that the government will spare no effort in investigating the disaster and providing assistance to the affected residents.
The Social Welfare Department as well as the Home Affairs Department pledged to do its utmost to provide assistance to the victims.
The hawker stalls where the fire ignited on Wednesday are close to the site of an arson that occurred this past December, injuring seven.