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A hospital fire killed 29 in Beijing, but residents were kept in the dark for hours


By Nectar Gan, Wayne Chang and CNN’s Beijing bureau

The deadliest fire to hit the Chinese capital in two decades killed 29 people in a hospital Tuesday, but most people didn’t hear about it until several hours later, and even then the details were slim as authorities kept a tight lid on details.

As flames tore through the Changfeng Hospital in Fengtai district from around 1 p.m. Tuesday, forcing some to desperately clamber out of windows and huddle on air conditioning units, state media kept silent and censors appeared to scrub the internet of any mentions.

The extent of information control and censorship came as a shock to internet users, as well as Beijing residents, many of whom complained online that they had no idea a deadly fire had erupted in their city until late on Tuesday night.

On Wednesday, Beijing officials offered more details about the fire during a news conference, which was delayed for half an hour and lasted less than 20 minutes.

The blaze that engulfed an inpatient building of Changfeng Hospital was caused by sparks from interior renovation work that ignited flammable paint, said Zhao Yang, an official at Beijing’s fire department, on Wednesday.

Twelve people were detained on suspicion of gross negligence, including the hospital’s director and construction workers, said Sun Haitao, an official with the Beijing Public Security Bureau.

In videos shared on social media Tuesday — before they were censored — smoke could be seen billowing out of several hospital windows as people desperately attempted to escape the blaze. At least one person appeared to use a rope made from bedsheets to descend from a window onto a lower level terrace.

Others were seen either huddling on air conditioning units positioned on the exterior of the building, or trying to use the units to maneuver themselves from one level to the next. One person was seen jumping from one level of the building to the lower terrace.

The blaze is the most deadly in Beijing in recent years, surpassing the toll from a fire in 2017 that killed 19 in a cramped two-story building in Daxing district in the capital’s southern suburb.

It’s also one of the most heavily censored incidents in recent years — and a sign of the tightening controls on media in China under leader Xi Jinping, the country’s most authoritarian leader in a generation.

‘Terrifying silence’

The fire broke out in a busy neighborhood in western Beijing around noon on Tuesday, but it wasn’t reported by Chinese media until about eight hours after firefighters answered calls for help.

At 8.43 p.m., a terse report on the incident was published by the Beijing Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese capital — more than 7 hours after the blaze was put out and over 5 hours after rescue efforts wrapped up.

On Chinese social media, many questioned why the public had been kept in the dark for so long.

“The incident happened after 12 p.m., and not a single media outlet reported on the breaking news at the time,” said a top comment on Weibo, noting that most state media outlets only carry standardized press releases after 9 p.m..

“The media has now basically become copy machines for standardized press releases,” it added.

China’s social media platforms, which had been fast to spread information about similar incidents in the past, were also largely silent about the fire throughout the afternoon.

The information control is extraordinary especially given the popularity of short video platforms and livestreaming sites in China.

“It is often said that in the era when everyone has a microphone, it is difficult to prevent news from spreading, but now it seems that it is not that difficult after all,” a commentator said on Wechat.

“Although 21 people have died, as long as (the authorities) don’t announce it, it will be as if nothing has happened in society,” the commentator said Tuesday before the death toll jumped to 29.

In the short news conference Wednesday, officials revealed details of those who died. Among them were 26 inpatients with an average age of 71. The oldest victim was 88. A nurse, a care worker and a family also died in the fire, according to Li Zongrong, deputy head of the Fengtai district government.

A total of 142 people were evacuated, including 71 patients. As of Wednesday, 39 injured remained in hospital, with three in critical condition, said Li Ang, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Heath Commission.

The family members of patients at the Changfeng Hospital said even as the tragedy was unfolding, they were oblivious.

On Tuesday evening, some rushed to the hospital to search for their loved ones after learning about it on the news, according to China Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper.

“Seven or eight hours have passed and I didn’t receive a single phone call,” a relative was quoted as saying.

But the hospital refused to give them a list of names of the victims, and instead asked them to register their information and wait for an official notice, the report said.

Following state media reports on the incident, social media discussions remained tightly controlled. Footage and photos of the fire were censored in real time, as were posts critical of the government’s handling of the fire and subsequent censorship.

Many questioned why the incident did not become a trending topic on Weibo throughout Tuesday and Wednesday morning.

Some compared the limited social media visibility of the fire to the overwhelming coverage of a fatal explosion at an Ohio metals plant in the US in February, which dominated Weibo trending topics for days.

While some Chinese media outlets have since published in-depth reporting on the aftermath of the fire, the initial, lengthy silence has come at the dismay of some liberal Chinese journalists.

On Wechat, a newspaper editor in Beijing lamented the tightening grip of censorship and control of society.

“The most terrifying thing is not the death of 29 people, but eight hours of silence,” the editor wrote in a post.

“The former is an accident and dereliction of duty, while the latter is a deliberate act with full effort, to unscrupulously show off its ability of social control, to treat us like deaf, blind, fools and worthless subjects. Accidents can be prevented, but the deliberate act may become the norm.”

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