Image: Chinese motorists pass by an apartment building
AP
Chinese motorists pass by an apartment building in the background, which was damaged by fire in the downtown area of Shanghai on Monday. Police detained unlicensed welders for accidentally starting a fire that engulfed the high-rise apartment building under renovation in China's business capital that killed at least 53 as public anger grew over the government's handling of the disaster.
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updated 11/17/2010 9:00:50 PM ET 2010-11-18T02:00:50

A Shanghai high-rise apartment fire that killed 53 people was completely avoidable, China's top labor safety official said, blaming lax supervision and illegal work practices.

Luo Lin, head of the State Administration of Work Safety, is leading the probe into the blaze, which gutted the 28-story building Monday afternoon after sparks from welding for energy saving renovations allegedly set nylon netting and scaffolding on fire, leaving many trapped in their homes.

"The accident should not have happened and could have been completely avoided," the official Xinhua News Agency cited Luo as saying in comments published Thursday.

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Authorities said Wednesday they had identified 26 of the 53 bodies taken from the building, suggesting many others were not yet identified as family members searched for more than 30 people reportedly missing from the blaze.

Officials have not said how many they believe are unaccounted for, although Shanghai's fire chief said the building had been thoroughly searched after the fire was extinguished.

Police said they had detained eight people suspected of responsibility for the disaster, four of them unlicensed welders.

Apart from poor worker safety and supervision, illegal use of subcontractors was a key factor behind the disaster, Luo said, promising to prosecute those responsible.

Unsafe construction is 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.

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.

The fire has heightened concern over China's ability to cope with fires in high-rise buildings. Shanghai alone has 15,000 high-rise buildings, many of them apartments. On Wednesday, officials ordered tighter fire prevention measures nationwide.

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Associated Press researcher Ji Chen in Shanghai contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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