Hong Kong police are seeking two men captured on closed-circuit television at the scene of the Nov. 30 fire in the Mong Kok district that killed nine people and injured 34.
“These two men may provide us with information about the case, or the cause of the fire,” Brian Lowcock, the superintendent of the police’s Kowloon West crime division, told reporters yesterday. “We are not treating them as suspects at the moment.” As of 1 a.m. today, the two men hadn’t come forward, according to the police information office.
The “suspicious” blaze at hawkers’ stalls in the crowded Fa Yuen Street, famous for its markets and shops in narrow streets, followed an arson attack in the same area last December that damaged shops and burnt 50 stalls. An 11-month-old boy, 16 men and 17 women, were admitted to hospital, with five in critical condition as of 10 p.m. yesterday, according to the government.
“The cause of the blaze is suspicious because our team who arrived at the scene saw both sides of the stall were on fire at the same time,” Szeto Yat San, the acting chief fire officer, told reporters Nov. 30.
Police received reports on the fire at about 4:40 a.m., according to a statement issued by the government. The blaze damaged 12 hawkers’ stalls, Radio Television Hong Kong reported, citing Wong Pui Ching, president of Fa Yuen Street Hawker Association. It spread to residential buildings where rescuers found most of the casualties, Szeto said. It was largely extinguished by 12:28 p.m., according to the government.
The government is considering improvements to the way hawkers operate in Mong Kok, including changing permanent stalls in Fa Yuen Street to ones that can be disassembled at night, York Chow, secretary for food and health, told reporters Nov. 30. It’s an iconic area and the government can’t be too hasty about making drastic changes, he said.
“We need to improve the safety of the area over the long term,” Chief Executive Donald Tsang told reporters in the city yesterday. “The government will work closely with district councilors and stall owners to achieve this.”
Chief Secretary Stephen Lam said yesterday that an interdepartmental working group set up to deal with the effects of the fire and consider local public-safety improvements had already met twice and is reviewing possible measures, according to a press release on the government’s website.
Mong Kok is also the site of a series of acid attacks between December 2008 and June 2009, in which about 100 were injured, according to the Standard newspaper.
Four ambulances and more than 10 fire engines were stationed near Fa Yuen Street Nov. 30 afternoon. Police cordoned off an entire block of the area, which is one road down from the Ladies Market, a shopping spot frequented by tourists. About 400 people were evacuated, an officer surnamed Lau, who declined to give his full name, said.
“Fires are quite regular here,” a 37-year-old housewife surnamed Chung said. The woman, who declined to provide her full name, said she and her family left their home near the fire at about 4 a.m.
A hawker who lives in the area, Lee Sau Yin, 61, said he was woken up by his daughter at 4 a.m. and didn’t have time to collect any of his belongings.
“I’m worried my goods will suffer damage from the water used by the firefighters,” said Lee, who owns a clothing stall and has been a Fa Yuen Street resident since 1985. Fires regularly occur on the street, he said.
The government issued 200 warning letters to stalls to remove materials that were obstructing the streets earlier in November, and it will escalate prosecution of owners who store an excessive amount of merchandise outside of stalls, Clement Leung, director of food and environmental hygiene, said Nov. 30.
“All the warnings and regulations are actually in place, but we still have yet to find the real cause for the fire,” Chow said at a press conference Nov. 30.
The injured were admitted to Kwong Wah, Queen Elizabeth, and Princess Margaret hospitals, according to the government.
The city’s government plans to redevelop part of the Mong Kok district, including six sites in Fa Yuen Street, according to a February government gazette.