SCMP Monday, July 3, 2000

Tai O fire leaves 300 homeless

NAOMI LEE


Almost 300 Tai O villagers were left homeless in a fire that lasted about six hours yesterday in an area targeted for redevelopment as a tourist site. Hours later, angry residents staged a rally accusing firemen of inefficiency.

The fire broke out at 12.36am and spread rapidly, punctuated by explosions of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders. The areas of Sha Tsai Min and Sam Chung, consisting of about 90 stilt houses and covering about 1,800 square metres, were worst hit.

The blaze was upgraded to a fourth alarm - the second most serious alert - at 2.22am. A total of 144 firemen using 17 water jets put out the fire at 5.55am. A woman, 52, felt unwell but refused to be admitted to hospital after treatment on the spot. The cause of the blaze, which started in Tai Ping Street, is being investigated. Last night, another fire started in the same area, but was quickly put out.

There are about 500 such houses in the Lantau village, Hong Kong's oldest fishing outpost, which has been at the centre of controversy in recent months over plans to redevelop it into a tourist centre. Residents have said the project would destroy their community.

Some residents who saw their homes burn complained that it took too long for the firemen to arrive and operate the jets. Others sprayed water on the outer walls and roofs of their houses to save their property. Many LPG cylinders were moved to open ground or thrown into the sea to prevent them exploding.

"The fire got very serious in just 45 minutes," said one resident. "There were several explosions but the firemen were nowhere in sight. When they arrived, they couldn't get any water out of the pipe." Homeless villagers staged a protest outside the fire station yesterday after meeting members of the Tai O Rural Committee.

The senior divisional officer of the Fire Services Department, Wun Hon-bong, said there might have been delays in spraying homes in certain parts of the village. He said firemen arrived at the scene six minutes after receiving calls and began operating the jets within 13 minutes.

He admitted they had spent some time finding paths but denied this had caused delay. He also denied there were difficulties with water supply.

"The source of water was not a problem. The fact that there were gas explosions and the fire was spreading fast might have confused the residents," Mr Wun said. He said officers had considered using helicopters to drop water bombs, but decided it would be too difficult at night.

The chairman of the Island District Council, Daniel Lam Wai-keung, said he had read the record of the Fire Services Department and was satisfied the firemen had not delayed the rescue work.

"There was a lot of stock and the wind was strong. The rescue work was understandably difficult," said Mr Lam. He said the council had set up a group to meet government departments over resettlement plans.

Temporary shelters have been opened for the 296 residents from 66 families made homeless. Most have refused to be rehoused outside Tai O, where their families have lived for generations.

The ruined area is included in a government plan to redevelop Tai O into a tourist spot consisting of a boat anchorage, an entrance plaza and a folk museum.