Firefighters pay the ultimate price for safety oversights
Published: May 03, 2014 06:18 PM Updated: May 03, 2014 06:33 PM

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

The death of two firefighters in Xuhui district on May 1 soured the festive mood of the city, at a time when media reported record passenger flows on metro lines and unprecedented numbers of visitors to parks and other scenic spots.

The two firefighters, Qian Lingyun, born in 1991, and Liu Jie, born in 1994, were both from Minhang district. They rushed to an 18-story residential building in Xujin town of Xuhui district where a fire was reported on the 13th floor at 2:01 pm. They were among the first batch of more than 100 firefighters on the rescue mission. Qian and Liu worked as water gun operators.

At about 2:17 pm, there was a blast from the room where the blaze began, which knocked the two firefighters out of a window. They were seen dropping from the building together and smashing on the platform of the second floor. They were pronounced dead at around 4:20 pm after medical efforts to save them failed.

The fire was subsequently put out with no injury to residents. Another firefighter is still hospitalized, but his injury isn't life threatening.

Media reports later revealed that the 88-square-meter apartment in which the fire started was rented out to a man from Jiangsu Province this March. The man told the landlord that his family would live in the apartment.

The landlord told Shanghai TV Station that he didn't visit the apartment after he got a three-month rental and one-month deposit from the tenant. But it turned out that 10 people were living in the apartment, with a number of bunk beds fitted into the two-bedroom apartment. The apartment had been divided into five separate sleeping areas with cardboard separators.

It isn't clear whether these modifications were made by the current or former tenants. The fact is that this is a typical case of group renting, a phenomenon which has long been banned by Shanghai and Beijing governments due to safety concerns. Among all the hazards, fire tops the list.

In this case, electric bicycles blocked access to the apartment; the rooms in the apartment were very crowded with clothes and other flammable materials; there was substandard electric wiring and overloaded power sockets; and to make matters worse there were even gas canisters stored in the apartment.

It's not hard to see that the place was an accident waiting to happen, raising the question of where responsibility lies for this incident, and the subsequent deaths of the two young firefighters.

On the Internet, we find comments like "The landlord should hold responsible for the tragedy;" "Anyone who helps separate the room should be held responsible;" "It should be the duty of the housing management bureau;" "Shouldn't chengguan (city management officers) help manage law enforcement regarding such illegal group rentals?" and "Police should have noticed the situation earlier and intervened."

Every claim sounds correct and logical. And the departments mentioned did, in fact, participate in a joint campaign in the days following the incident.

On the night of May 1, officials from the public security bureau, housing administration, and the city appearance and environmental sanitation administration went to inspect the residential compound where the fire broke out.

In the campaign, 90 group rental cases were found and more than 380 tenants were ordered to leave the area. Cardboard separators in 123 illegally separated rooms were removed.

One netizen's commentary on the overnight campaign expressed the public's concern. He was quoted by Shanghai TV Station as saying that he hoped the death of the two young heroes will really change something, otherwise their sacrifice would just be a tragic loss to the families of the men.

But this shouldn't be a one-day campaign that only targets a certain area. Long-term resolution and enforcement must be taken to prevent similar accidents from happening in future.

Although the public is critical of the lax oversight that leads to such incidents, we still find that whenever a tragedy like this takes place, there are heroes protecting the interests of the general public.

Qian Lingyun and Liu Jie are two clear examples. Others include another two firefighters, Lu Chen and Sun Luoluo, who lost their lives on February 4, when the rest of the country was celebrating the Chinese New Year. The two died when trying to put out a fire at a packaging factory in Baoshan district.

All these young firefighters unhesitatingly took action, risking and ultimately losing their lives, although they were also ordinary people who were no doubt looking forward to spending the holiday period with their friends and family.

Although they will never have the chance to do that again, thanks to their sacrifice, many other people will.

Hopefully, this sad case will drive home the dangers of illegal group renting, and act as a spur for authorities, landlords, tenants and the public to join in a citywide campaign against the practice. Then at least some good will have come from the sacrifice made by these two young firefighters.

The author is the managing editor of Global Times Metro Shanghai.