BEIJING — A fire at an apartment building in China’s northwest Xinjiang region has killed 10 and injured nine, authorities said on Friday, amid strict lockdowns that have left many residents of the region stuck at home for more than three months.
The blaze broke out on Thursday evening in the regional capital of Urumqi, where temperatures dipped below freezing after dark.
The flames spread upward from the 15th floor to the 17th floor, with smoke rising to the 21st floor, according to multiple state media. The fire took about three hours to extinguish.
Deaths and injuries were caused by inhaling toxic fumes, and those taken to hospital are all expected to survive, according to reports. An initial investigation appears to show the fire was started by a power strip in a bedroom in one of the 15th floor apartments.
A Uighur living in exile in Switzerland said he learned from a call with a neighbor that his aunt and four of his children had died in the fire.
“She was a wonderful woman, who always thought about her children and how to treat and educate them well,” Abdulhafız Muhammed Emin said sobbing in a phone interview. “My heart is really broken, I can’t take it.”
Xinjiang has been under severe lockdown measures for more than three months to combat the spread of the coronavirus under China’s “zero-COVID” policy. The country has grappled with a surge of cases in recent weeks, causing continued lockdowns and rigid travel restrictions affecting hundreds of millions of people.
Videos posted on social media showed an arc of water from a distant fire engine falling short of the blaze, sparking waves of angry comments online. Some said the fire trucks were blocked by pandemic control barriers or blocked cars after their owners quarantined, but why the truck was away was unclear.
Many Xinjiang residents are frustrated with China’s strict COVID-19 controls. In September, some reported going hungry amid patchy food deliveries.
Xinjiang “is an open-air prison,” Muhammed Emin said. “The Chinese government doesn’t care about their lives.
Urumqi Mayor Memtimin Qadir apologized to city residents at a press conference on Friday evening and announced the formation of a government team to investigate the fire.
At the press conference, Urumqi authorities said emergency doors were not locked and residents were allowed to descend “for activities” since the community has been designated as a “low risk area for COVID-19”.
“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was too weak…and they failed to escape in time,” said Li Wensheng, chief of the city’s fire rescue department. from Urumqi.
Muhammed Emin disputes that account, citing social media posts saying many apartment residents were locked in their homes due to COVID-19 checks. Another post said residents were only allowed downstairs for a few hours a day and were not free to come and go from the building. The Associated Press could not independently verify the claims in the social media posts.
Urumqi has not seen a recent major outbreak, with just 977 cases reported Friday, almost all of them asymptomatic. However, as in many parts of China, local officials fearful of losing their jobs are leaning towards more extreme measures to prevent outbreaks in their jurisdiction.
The tragedy comes days after 38 people died in a fire at an industrial trading company in central China caused by welding sparks that ignited cotton fabric.
Four people were arrested in connection with the blaze in Anyang city on Monday and local authorities ordered extensive safety inspections to root out potential dangers.
This story corrects the day of the Urumqi authorities’ press conference.