The Nepalese restaurant where a massive blaze broke out on Sunday had only one exit, resulting in a harrowing and deadly escape for victims of Hong Kong’s worst fire in nearly a decade.
The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) said they have no record of the restaurant. It confirmed with Coconuts that the department did receive a complaint last April about an unlicensed eatery operating in the tenement building, but did not find it during a visit.
By law, restaurants not on ground level must have at least two exit staircases, according to the FEHD’s restaurant license guide.
Around 20 people were celebrating a birthday on the first floor of the building when a soundproof panel was reportedly set on fire by a candle lit to mark Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights celebrated by South Asian.
The fire quickly spread through the unit, killing seven people—many of them related to each other—who were unable to escape. Among the dead are two minors, the younger of whom was eight-year-old boy. A thirteen-year-old girl who was celebrating her younger brother’s birthday also died. (Her brother survived, but their father did not.)
That morning, she posted on Facebook wishing him a happy birthday and shared photos of her brother. “May all your wish[es] come true,” she wrote.
The diner was run by a Nepalese couple. The 40-year-old female owner was also killed in the blaze.
The fire has renewed fire hazard concerns at unlicensed venues, where a lack of exit routes and fire safety equipment can impede escape in the event of a fire. Many of these establishments are frequented by ethnic minority communities, for whom unregulated spaces such as unlicensed restaurants are one of the few places they can gather freely and at a low cost.
On Tuesday, mourners placed bouquets of white flowers on the road opposite the building where the fire happened. Some also brought packet drinks and candy as offerings.
A teacher at the perished eight-year-old boy’s school told Apple Daily that the restaurant has been in operation for five or six years and is considered “well-known,” with “outsiders,” including herself, visiting it too. She said she was sad when she learnt about the death of one of her school’s students, and that she and other colleague came to pay their respects before going to work.
A Nepalese couple who traveled from their home in Tung Chung arrived at the site to mourn the victims of the tragedy, Apple Daily reported. The husband said he was shocked by the death toll and that the government should step up its patrol of unlicensed businesses.
“[It’s] very, very sad,” he said.
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