Flames leapt from the top floors and residents crawled onto air conditioners Wednesday as fire tore through a 16-story building, killing 32 people in the worst blaze in Hong Kong in 25 years.
Many of the dead, their bodies badly charred, were found on the top floors of the commercial and residential building in a downtown shopping district. The victims included a firefighter who fell down an elevator shaft.
It took firefighters nearly 20 hours to put out the blaze, which was still burning thismorning.
Police said 79 people were injured. At least eight people were missing. Twenty-three people were rescued unharmed.
Television showed flames leaping from windows on the top three or four floors, where steel window frames were bent by the heat.
People climbed out of windows and clung precariously to air conditioners, using handkerchiefs to cover their mouths and noses. Others waved pieces of cloth through tiny ventilation shafts to signal for help as a helicopter lifted residents from the blaze.
One man jumped from a window to a fireman’s ladder. Another, who lost his grip on a window sill, fell several floors onto a makeshift roof. He was seen lying motionless in his blood-soaked shirt.
Authorities said the fire, which began Wednesday evening, started in the elevator shaft and spread upstairs. Fire officials said the structure did not have an adequate fire prevention system.
“It is an old building. It lacks an automatic alarm and fire extinguishing system, so the fire was not controlled at an early stage,” said Peter Cheung, director of Hong Kong’s fire department.
The Garley building is on the colony’s busy Nathan road, a major shopping thoroughfare in the crowded Yaumatei district on the Kowloon Peninsula.
It is the worst blaze since 1971, when a fire ripped through a floating restaurant in the fishing village of Aberdeen, killing 37 people.