SHANGHAI, China — The government's swift steps to assign blame after a Shanghai apartment fire killed at least 53 people showed how worried officials were to ease alarm among residents about the more than four hours it took to put it out.
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The fire, which gutted a 28-story high-rise in China's busy commercial hub, was sparked by "unlicensed welding carried out contrary to rules," Xinhua news agency said, without citing a source.
"Four suspects have been detained by public security," said the report. It did not say whether those detained were workers or managers.
A preliminary investigation showed that four welders improperly operated their equipment, setting off Monday's fire in Shanghai, the city government and state television reported.
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Witnesses and building residents quoted earlier by state media said the blaze began when building materials caught fire. It then spread quickly to scaffolding covering the building, which houses a number of retired teachers as well as other families.
'Weren't fast enough'
Frustration grew Tuesday among relatives seeking answers to how such a tragedy could happen in Shanghai, a wealthy city that is one of the country's best-run urban centers.
"We feel that the fire rescue measures and methods weren't fast enough, and secondly they weren't vigorous enough," Du Deyuan, a 66-year-old resident who said he lived on the 26th floor and was out when the fire broke out.
"People live in high-rises, and then you have this burn all the way from low down to the 28th story, burnt so the whole building is blazing red. What could the people inside do?"
China's rapid urban growth is throwing up vast numbers of new high-rise buildings, and while major fire disasters have been relatively rare compared to other developing countries, safety maintenance can be lacking.
"It is hard to believe the government now. The drills on TV are successful, but when a fire truly happens, it's just useless. We feel helpless," said a woman who gave only her surname, Liu. She said her mother lived on the ninth floor of the building and died in the fire.
"There must be something illegal in the construction materials, though we don't know. I am waiting for the government's explanation," Liu said. The renovations were intended to improve the building's energy efficiency.
At one temporary facility for residents of the building, one middle-aged man was shouting that he was being stopped from going to a funeral home to identify his wife.
"I couldn't sleep last night, and have been waiting hours and hours. Why don't they tell me the truth, why don't they let me go," said the man, who refused to give his name.
The fire dominated Shanghai's skyline before it was put out after more than four hours, with black smoke billowing through the sky. The government said more than 100 fire trucks battled the blaze.
Survivors were taken to nine Shanghai hospitals, where there were sad scenes as relatives searched for their loved ones. At Jing'an hospital, the father of Wang Yinxing, a 30-year-old woman who lived on the 22nd floor, searched a list of survivors but could not find his daughter's name.
Police minister weighs in
"Putting out fires in high-rise buildings is a problem for fire-fighting internationally," Xinhua cited Chen Fei, chief of fire-fighting in Shanghai, as saying.
"Controlling the blaze was very difficult," he added, noting that trucks with ladders and extensions could not get close.
Police Minister Meng Jianzhu said risks of such fires were rising.
"Now is a period when fire disasters can easily occur, and we have to conscientiously absorb the lessons of this disaster," he told officials in Shanghai, according to the Ministry of Public Security website (www.mps.gov.cn).
As well as 53 confirmed killed, 70 residents were taken to hospital, including 17 with serious burns, Xinhua said. Last year, 1,076 people were killed and 580 injured in fires in China, according to the Ministry of Public Security, which also controls fire-fighting services.
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It is common to find fire exits blocked or locked in many Chinese buildings, ostensibly to stop thieves or because the space is being used for storage, and fire extinguishers are not widely available. Meng sought to head off public disquiet about the blaze in Shanghai, a city with an urban population of about 13 million which has just finished hosting an expo intended to showcase it as a modern, global metropolis.
"Quickly smooth people's emotions and defuse conflicts," he told officials. "Get to the bottom of the cause, clarify its nature, determine responsibility and deal with this sternly according to the law."
A department building fire in northeastern province of Jilin earlier this month killed at least 19 people and injured 24.
In early 2009, a hotel being built next to the half-finished, hyper-modern new headquarters of Chinese state television in Beijing was consumed by fire after a fireworks display went wrong. One fireman died.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.