Beijing blaze kills 17 in "illegal" building

BEIJING Mon Apr 25, 2011 2:33am EDT

Policemen investigate a fire near a four-storey building in Daxing District of Beijing, early morning April 25, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer

Policemen investigate a fire near a four-storey building in Daxing District of Beijing, early morning April 25, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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BEIJING (Reuters) - A fire on Monday killed at least 17 people in a building crowded with migrant workers on the fringe of Beijing and the government vowed to track down those responsible for the blaze in what one official said was an illegal building.

The deaths were a reminder that even in Beijing, rural migrant workers can live in sweatshop conditions starkly at odds with the city's image of secure prosperity.

The early morning fire engulfed a four-storey building in Daxing District, an area in the south of Beijing crammed with small factories, workshops and crumbling apartments rented by migrant workers. The fire also injured 24 people, the Xinhua news agency reported, citing police.

China's ruling Communist Party is anxious about any accidents that could unsettle the public, especially in the capital, and city leaders rushed to the scene, where close to 200 firefighters and police put out the flames.

The victims all appeared to be migrants from outside Beijing who died of asphyxiation, Chang Hongyan, a fire safety official in Daxing, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

Chang described the building as an "illegal dwelling." The first floor, where the fire appeared to have broken out and where all the deaths occurred, was rented out for a garment workshop, with a workers' dormitory at the back.

"Initial checks have established that the garment workshop was not registered with industry and commerce (authorities), and was operating illegally," Xinhua said, citing Chang.

The city's party secretary, Liu Qi, and mayor, Guo Jinlong, told investigators to "rapidly establish the cause," Xinhua said. Officials vowed to "strictly pursue responsibility according to the law."

Police guarded the narrow streets and alleys around the charred building while distraught residents walked by.

The government often responds to major accidents by detaining and jailing officials and managers accused of lapses.

Rapid growth is throwing up vast numbers of new buildings in China, and although major fires have been relatively rare compared with other developing countries, safety can be lax.

After a fire in a 28-storey apartment in Shanghai killed 79 people last year, authorities said they would prosecute 24 officials, building contractors and workers blamed for lax safety during welding that sparked the fire.

Twenty people were jailed over a 2009 fire that gutted a half-built hotel next to a modern tower being built as a headquarters for the central state television station. One fireman died and both buildings remain unfinished.

(Editing by Ken Wills and Ron Popeski)

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