BEIJING - A huge fire in a Xinjiang housing complex on Thursday that killed 10 people and injured nine has led to an uproar among netizens, after it was revealed that Covid-19 measures at the compound had likely delayed rescuers.
Videos and photos on social media showed how firefighters were obstructed from entering the compound in Urumqi by barricades, and had to hose down the raging fire from just beyond the perimeter. The Straits Times was unable to independently verify the authenticity of the videos.
Victims were also unable to escape the building, which had been padlocked – common in estates under lockdown.
Officials said that the fire had started just before 8pm on Thursday on the 15th floor of a high-rise apartment complex in Urumqi, the capital of the western Xinjiang region. It later spread to higher floors.
Initial investigations have shown that a faulty power strip in a bedroom led to the fire, which started burning out of control.
Emergency responders rushed to the scene, along with senior city officials, and the fire was put out nearly three hours later. All the injured suffered from smoke inhalation.
“(Xinhua) understands that Jixiangyuan Estate was a low-risk area, and residents were allowed to go downstairs,” a state media report said, referring to Covid-19 infection risk level..
But this was disputed by netizens, many of whom said that despite the area being classified as “low risk”, residents could not move about freely and some were quarantined.
Further fuelling public anger has been the almost immediate censorship of any online content about the incident that differs from the official narrative.
Xinjiang on Friday reported 977 new infections, of which 957 were asymptomatic.
Despite the region’s relatively few cases, the western region has been under partial lockdown for more than three months, and information emerging from the area has been tightly controlled.
A viral post on Friday afternoon that called the fire “Xinjiang’s greatest nightmare” showed how firefighters had been blocked from entering the housing complex by what appeared to be barriers on one side and parked cars on the other.
“Those involved in pandemic control have lost their humanity,” read one comment from a user in Shanghai.
The post was deleted within hours after being widely shared on messaging app WeChat.
“It’s ridiculous how I can’t even share news about my home town,” said Dr Rui, a Chinese physician from Xinjiang, who had shared the since-deleted post. She declined to give her full name.
“How is it that when something terrible happens, I’m not allowed to share my thoughts?
“My colleague in Shenzhen said that if they didn’t know me, they won’t even know what’s happening in Xinjiang,” she told The Straits Times.
A hashtag related to the fire had 1.16 billion views by 6pm on Friday, mostly reposts of state media news stories. But many posts either had images that could no longer be opened – a sign of censorship – or that disappeared moments after showing up.
In a late night press conference, Urumqi officials refuted accusations that residents were trapped by hoarding.
Lasting just under 20 minutes with no questions allowed, officials reading from prepared scripts insisted the estate had not been under lockdown at the time of the fire, adding that residents had been allowed to move around the compound since Sunday, “going downstairs during non-peak periods in an orderly manner”.
“The pictures circulating online... are surreptitiously substituting one thing for another, and are maliciously linking one thing to another,” added Tianshan district chief Hamiti Maimaitiyiming.
Officials also said that narrow roads and haphazardly parked residents’ vehicles had blocked fire trucks from entering the compound.
“There were a lot of people that needed to be evacuated, and the fire was big,” said city fire chief Li Wensheng. “Some residents also had a low self-preservation ability, and were unfamiliar with other fire escape route.”
Some 514 residents affected by the blaze have also been relocated to hotels and those whose apartments have mild damage will be able to return home from Saturday.
The fire comes amid growing public frustration over what many deem as excessively strict and disruptive control measures in China’s pursuit of “dynamic zero-Covid-19”.
In the face of China’s worst outbreak yet, many are questioning the efficacy of enforcing mass testing, lockdowns and quarantines, especially as the rest of the world continues to open up.
A plethora of videos have caught abusive behaviour by local health workers dressed in distinctive white protective coveralls.
The government announced an easing of control measures on Nov 11 and warned local officials not to unnecessarily lock down housing complexes or to arbitrarily impose rules.
But as cases have continued to climb in recent weeks, officials across the country, including in capital city Beijing, have been confining people to their homes if a positive case is detected as far as two blocks away.