Image: Damaged building in Shanghai, China
AP
Monday's deadly blaze has heightened concern over the ability to cope with disasters in Shanghai, a city of 20-plus million people which features 15,000 high-rise buildings.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/17/2010 6:07:56 AM ET 2010-11-17T11:07:56

China ordered tighter fire prevention measures Wednesday following a blaze that gutted a high-rise apartment building in China's business capital, killing at least 53 people.

Relatives were still searching for their loved ones, while authorities have not given any figures for the number of missing from the fire in a downtown neighborhood Monday afternoon. Shanghai's fire chief, Chen Fei, said firefighters searched the 28-story building thoroughly after the fire was put out and could not have missed anyone.

"Sleepless night for victims, every minute caught between hope and despair," said a headline in Wednesday's edition of the local newspaper Oriental Morning Post.

The state-run Xinhua news service said Wednesday that DNA tests had identified 26 of the victims. The Associated Press initially reported that the death toll had risen to 79 but later issued a correction.

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The government order called for inspections and removal of fire hazards in highly-trafficked sites such as shopping centers, hotels, hospitals, schools and high-rise buildings, Bloomberg News reported. It also said there would be penalties for those responsible for fires, including business closures and punishments for local officials.

Many of those in the building at the time of the fire were retirees.

The Post ran pictures showing a list of 36 people still being sought after the fire, though there was no official confirmation of the information.

Public outrage
Police detained four unlicensed welders who were working on "energy-saving" renovations when sparks from their welding apparently spread to bamboo scaffolding and nylon nets shrouding the building. The city's deputy police chief, Cheng Jiulong, said eight people had been detained, but did not identify them.

Chen, the fire chief, sought to deflect public outrage over the government's handling of the disaster, saying firefighters had done the best that could be expected given the height of the building and amount of flammable materials that caught fire.

"Fighting fires in high-rise residential buildings is different than for other buildings," he said. "Residential high-rises have more flammable materials and more sources for causing fires. They have metal security doors, so rescuing people can be very difficult."

Chen added that the scaffolding surrounding the building consisted of flammable nylon netting and bamboo, according to Radio Free Asia.

State propaganda officials also warned news websites to downplay coverage of the fire, telling them in a directive that the news "should be removed from the headline position" and "all material critical of the government should be removed from interactive environments," the report also said.

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The fire has heightened concern over the ability to cope with such disasters in this city of 20-plus million people, many of them living in its 15,000 high-rise buildings.

In a notice posted on its website, the Cabinet ordered authorities to improve fire safety and prevention, especially in the winter when widespread use of space heaters is an added risk. It named construction sites and high-rise buildings as areas needing extra attention.

'Crying out to be rescued'
A Shanghai resident, also with the last name Chen and who didn't give his first name, told Radio Free Asia that he watched the fire unfold through his binoculars, and that he "could see that there were people crying out to be rescued."

He saw fire trucks at the scene, but said they weren't able to get close enough to carry out more rescues, apparently because of the high heat.

Slideshow: Fire ravages Shanghai skyscraper (on this page)

"I don't think that a single person was saved by those fire ladders," the report quoted him as saying. "When the fire is above the 14th or 15th floors, there's very little they can do."

Shanghai recently hosted the World Expo and is still in the midst of a construction frenzy that has brought new subway lines, highways and airport upgrades. The city is one of China's best-run, but its public services still lag far behind its often ultramodern infrastructure.

Unsafe building work remains a chronic problem in China. Last year, a nearly finished 13-story apartment building in Shanghai collapsed, killing one worker. Investigations showed that excavated dirt piled next to the building may have caused the collapse.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: Fire ravages Shanghai skyscraper

loading photos...
  1. Firefighters try to put out a massive blaze at an apartment building in the downtown area of Shanghai, China, on Monday, Nov. 15. At least 42 people were killed and 90 injured in the towering inferno. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. People crowd the streets of Shanhai to watch the burning residential building. (Aly Song / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Dozens of firetrucks were called to the scene. (Imaginechina) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The apartment building was reportedly home to many retired teachers. (Aly Song / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Nearby residents watch the fire envelope the building. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rescuers rush a survivor to an ambulance. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Firefighters make progress in extinguishing the blaze. (Aly Song / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A fireman searches for survivors in the building's burned-out shell. (Aly Song / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Deadly blaze in Shanghai

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