A Christmas Day fire at an unlicensed bar killed at least 26 people and injured eight in a Chinese city near Hong Kong, the government said yesterday.
The fire broke out at 11 p.m. (local time) on Sunday evening in Zhongshan, which abuts the former Portuguese colony of Macau west of Hong Kong, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
At least 26 people were killed, Xinhua said. Sixty-seven people were rescued, and the blaze was put out in less than 30 minutes, the state television station said.
Cause remains unclear
It said the cause of the blaze was under investigation.
"This small bar is an illegal business inside a restaurant," said an official in the propaganda office of Zhongshan's Communist Party branch.
"The bar owner has been detained for investigation," said the official, who wouldn't give his name.
A police officer in Tanzhou township reached by telephone ruled out media speculation that arson was the cause of the fire, but declined further comment.
"Witnesses said disco lights fell to the ground and exploded after the boss handed out Christmas gifts," a resident who lives nearby said.
Police sealed off the street, where the bar occupied the first two floors of a building, another resident named Chen said by telephone.
"We've heard lots of rumors. Some said it was disco lights. Others said it was a gas pipe," Chen added.
Zhongshan is part of the booming Pearl River Delta region around Hong Kong whose factories form the heart of China's export-driven manufacturing industries.
Witnesses quoted by Hong Kong Cable TV said there was an explosion before the bar fire. Many of the injured suffered severe burns and were sent to a local hospital, the station said.
"This was a popular bar. Lots of people went there," said a woman who works at a nearby restaurant and refused to give her name. "It must have been crowded last night because of the Christmas celebration."
Poor safety standards
Pictures on China Central Television showed firefighters wading through the charred ruins of the bar. Stools were burned and overturned, and much of the ceiling had collapsed.
Poor safety standards in Chinese buildings have been blamed for many fatal fires in China in recent years.
Just 10 days ago, 39 people died and 182 were injured in the northeastern province of Jilin in what officials described as China's worst hospital fire in more than half a century.
Witnesses said the hospital lacked fire extinguishers and alarms and that all the fire escapes were blocked.
China's ministry of public security recorded 222,000 accidental fires across the country from January to November that killed a total of 2,048 people and injured 2,080.