SHANGHAI — Police detained unlicensed welders Tuesday on suspicion of accidentally starting a fire that engulfed a high-rise apartment building under renovation in China’s business capital, killing at least 53 people, as public anger grew over the government’s handling of the disaster.
A preliminary investigation showed four welders improperly operated their equipment, sparking Monday’s blaze in Shanghai, the city government said on its website. Police investigating the disaster said eight people had been detained, but did not identify them.
Shanghai’s fire chief said the fire started on the 10th floor and spread quickly to scaffolding and nylon nets covering the 28-story building. The inferno sent black smoke billowing across the city’s skyline.
In addition to the 53 fatalities, the city government said Tuesday that more than 70 other people had been rushed to hospitals. Fifteen were in serious condition, most elderly and suffering from smoke inhalation, the deputy director of the Shanghai Health Bureau, Li Weiping, said.
Frustration grew Tuesday among relatives seeking answers to how such a tragedy could happen in a wealthy city that is one of the country’s best-run urban centers.
“It is hard to believe the government now. The drills on TV are successful, but when a fire truly happens, it’s just useless. We feel helpless,” said a woman who gave only her surname, Liu. She said her mother lived on the ninth floor of the building and died in the fire.
“There must be something illegal in the construction materials, though we don’t know. I am waiting for the government’s explanation,” Liu said. The renovations were intended to improve the building’s energy efficiency.
At one temporary facility for residents of the building, one middle-aged man was shouting that he was being stopped from going to a funeral home to identify his wife.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, and have been waiting hours and hours. Why don’t they tell me the truth, why don’t they let me go?” said the man, who refused to give his name.
Survivors were taken to nine Shanghai hospitals, where relatives searched for their loved ones. Local authorities have tried to determine the number of residents in the building when the fire broke out and how many remain missing, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Chen Jiulong, Shanghai’s deputy police chief, said eight people had been detained. He did not say if all were workers.
“This fire is a manmade disaster involving heavy responsibility and we must pursue those who are legally responsible for it,” he said.
Shanghai Fire Chief Chen Fei told the same news conference that 200 firefighters went into the burning building and rescued 107 people. He said once the scaffolding and nylon nets caught fire the flames spread quickly, especially because it was a windy day.
Asked if there could still be people inside, Chen would only say firefighters entered the building after the blaze was largely put out Monday evening and were carrying out “an extremely thorough search.”
Shanghai, a city of 20 million and the venue of the recently concluded World Expo, has witnessed a construction frenzy in recent years, ranging from high rises that dot its skyline to new subway lines, highways and airport upgrades. But unsafe building work remains a chronic problem in China.
Last year, a nearly finished 13-story apartment building in Shanghai collapsed, killing one worker. Investigations showed that excavated dirt piled next to the building may have caused the collapse.
There have been no reports of serious apartment fires in China in recent years. The Shanghai fire is the worst since 53 people died in a supermarket fire in Jilin province in northeast China in 2003, according to the State Administration for Work Safety. It said 300 died in another supermarket fire in Henan province in central China in 2000.
Associated Press researcher Ji Chen in Shanghai and AP writer Alexa Olesen in Beijing contributed to this report.