Christmas fire kills at least 309 at China shopping center

BEIJING - Authorities detained the operators of a dance hall where at least 309 people were killed in a Christmas night fire, state media said Wednesday. Both revelers in the fourth-floor disco and construction workers on the floors below died in the raging blaze.

The reports said that the disco, located inside a shopping center in the central China city of Luoyang, was operating illegally.

Firefighters on cranes plucked people from the upper floors Monday night as others hung from windows and balconies to escape flames that shot out broken windows. The blaze was put out three hours after it began.

On Tuesday, rescuers were pulling bodies from the wreckage of Dongdu Commercial building. With more Chinese holidays ahead, officials in Beijing urged local authorities to check on safety measures in other public venues to avert further tragedies.

Investigators believe the fire started in the shopping center's basement, where renovation work was under way, and that most of the dead were suffocated by the smoke, said an official with Luoyang's information office, who only gave his surname, Li.

Most of the victims died in the disco the government's Xinhua News Agency said. Construction materials may have been blocking exits, local media reported. It was unclear whether the construction workers trapped were on the job at the time.

No details on the identities or numbers of those detained were immediately available. The English-language China Daily reported Wednesday that the hall was run by a ''private businessman'' operating ''against certain regulations.''

Firefighters tried to enter the fourth-floor disco but were forced back by thick smoke, the Henan Daily newspaper reported. A woman - her face and hands covered in soot and blood - said she and five or six others jumped from a balcony, the newspaper reported.

An employee at a cinema across the street said smoke poured from the building's top and back. Firefighters and police cordoned off the area Tuesday as they searched the building, said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

On Wednesday, the independent Boxun news Web site quoted a neighborhood resident as saying that the disco had attracted an especially large crowd by offering free admission.

Relatives fearing their loved ones were lost in the fire mobbed a downtown hotel where authorities were registering missing persons, the Web site said.

The scope of the tragedy underscored the rampant disregard for safety measures and lax enforcement despite repeated appeals from the government to better protect the public.

The vast majority of those caught in the fire were killed - only 60 people escaped the blaze and seven were injured - raising questions about the lack of safety equipment to rescue people, state media reported.

The disco was packed for a Christmas party, Li said. Although not a holiday in officially atheistic China, Christmas has become a fashionable occasion for parties among younger urban Chinese.

The fire occurred just ahead of the New Year and the Lunar New Year, China's biggest holiday, which this year falls Jan. 24 - a time when Chinese leaders sharpen vigilance for accidents.

The Public Security Ministry on Tuesday instructed ''local governments to spare no efforts to ensure safety during the holidays,'' Xinhua said. The directive, it added, ordered checks of hotels, shopping malls, hospitals and other public venues, and demanded unlicensed and unsafe dance halls be shut down.

Luoyang, in the province of Henan along the Yellow River, is a cradle of Chinese civilization and until a thousand years ago was the capital of kingdoms and dynasties. Henan, China's most populous province, has undergone rapid economic growth in recent years but not all public services have kept up with the expansion.

The province came under criticism for public safety problems in March when a fire killed 74 people in a cinema in Jiaozuo city that was illegally showing adult movies.

Luoyang's fire was China's deadliest since Dec. 8, 1994, when a blaze in a theater in the western Xinjiang region killed 385 people - most of them children. Only one exit door was unlocked when the fire broke out.


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