Monday, September 5, 2011

Repost: Witnessing Vietnam’s Deadliest Fire

The recent announcement that the Ho Chi Minh City Fire Department “has got five modern fire engines to fight blazes in high-rise buildings” and the survey about the Vietnamese youth’s attitudes towards corruption prompted me to dig up this old blog post from 2002.

Fighting fire can be improved with new technology and better training, but civic-mindedness and the willingness to intervene or take action against injustice or to help those in need requires an individual to put aside his/own self-interest and be courageous enough to overcome fear of harm that may come one's way. The survey's results do not make Vietnamese youth look good.

The Saigon International Trade Center or InterShop is located at the corner of Nam Ky Khoi Nghia and Nguyen Trung Truc. The fire broke out on Tuesday, 29 October, 2002. To date it was the deadliest fire in Viet Nam in terms of lives lost and the biggest peacetime tragedy.

The version below appeared on various web sites, especially those of overseas Vietnamese. A shorter Vietnamese version was published by Saigon Tiep Thi magazine. I received a flood of responses from both in and outside Viet Nam. The responses from those inside Viet Nam were more of a soul-searching nature, very moving.

Please read it and tell me what you think. Would love to hear how much has or hasn’t changed, especially from those who currently live or work in Viet Nam.

Witnessing Vietnam’s Deadliest Fire
I recently spent the longest forty minutes of my life, witnessing people facing death in Viet Nam’s deadliest peacetime tragedy. I had never felt as helpless before as the fire raged through a Ho Chi Minh City’s shopping center on Tuesday, taking the lives of 60 people, including 4 foreigners.

Had the fire started two days earlier or 30 minutes later, I would have been one of the victims fleeing for his life or one of the unlucky ones who did not make it. Had help arrived within the first fifteen minutes, many of those who perished would have lived to fulfill their dreams and aspirations.

As usual, I had gone for a haircut at a salon right across the Saigon International Trade Center or InterShop, as the locals know it, on my last day in Vietnam. This has been a routine on every trip. Intershop was a labyrinth of retail stalls selling souvenirs, jewelry, shoes and other household goods. The seven-story building also housed a mixture of local and international corporate offices, including the American International Assurance Co., an insurance giant, a restaurant and a nightclub.

I had stopped in two days earlier to pick up a few souvenir items and was going to do some more shopping there with my remaining three hours in Viet Nam right after the haircut.
Looking at the fire from the hair salon. (Sonny Le, 29/10/02)
At around 2:00 P.M. local time, a salon staff ran in to tell everyone that smoke was rising out of the Intershop. My hair was barely done. The salon manager cut the electricity and told everyone to leave the premise. As we stood outside the salon looking at the thick plume of smoke, we began to see people climbing out onto a small landing area at the rear of the building. As more people jostling for space, some began to jump down to the roof of the adjacent building, the distance of about 30 feet or 9 meters.

As the thick black smoke began to engulf the fleeing victims, more slid or jumped down, breaking their legs, arms and bodies in the process. There were no ladders or emergency escapes. Also in their way were the barbed-wire fence and other barriers separating InterShop and the adjacent buildings, which not only slowed them down but also drew their blood. After having landed on the roof of the adjacent building, the victims still had to jump down to the next roof and then another 15 feet or so from the awning to the ground.
People attempting to jump down from a small landing area can be seen at center 
top of picture. Click on photo to enlarge.  (Sonny Le, 29/10/02)
The most tragic of all was the sense of hopelessness felt among the bystanders. However, I was most disturbed by the fact that the crowds were not moved to action. For about two minutes I joined the crowds watching the tragedy unfold. Some women in the crowds cried and yelled out, “Why doesn't someone go help those people down? They are being burned.” I sensed the crowds were stunned into helplessness but there was something else rather macabre was taking place. They were watching enthralled and in silence like spectators at sporting events.

Climbing down make-shift ladders. (Sonny Le, 29/10/02)
I ran across the street to join a group of about seven men, one of whom was a tall white man, who was later identified as a Mr. Gillin, an American and a ten-year resident of the city. We joined hands in a circle trying to catch people as they jumped from the awning to the ground. We caught more than a handful. A few more men brought short metal stepladders and a tall, about 12 feet, bamboo ladder. With these ladders, we tried to make a bridge so we could get up closer to the victims. A good fifteen minutes passed before the first fire engine arrived. The most horrifying specter for me was the firemen did not seem to know what to do. And a few men dressed in security uniforms did not know what to do either. The first group of firemen at the scene had on neither gas masks nor protective gears. They wore knee-high rubber wading boots, the types that one wears to slosh around in the mud, and with no oxygen tanks in sight.

I was at the back end of the building so I was not aware of other fire engines at the front side of the building, or on the other side.
Policemen and firefighters milling about. (Sonny Le, 29/10/02)
Thirty minutes into the inferno, another fire engine arrived with one small ambulance, a refashioned Toyota minivan. The ambulance had no gurney and there was no Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) in sight, who usually is on board in the U.S. The lone driver was all there was. Again, the number of those giving a hand was no more than twenty individuals. At this point, more police was at the scene and began to exercise crowd control. The thick smoke had reached the ground level and the crowds began to withdraw from the area. I began to gag as the smoke was burning up my eyes and nose. It became difficult to breathe as a handful of us tried to catch people and/or holding up the flimsy ladders.

By-stander trying to help. (Sonny Le, 29/10/02)
 I was torn over the decision whether to remain on the scene and help. I contemplated climbing up the ladders so I could get closer to the victims to help break their fall. It was about 2:40 by now and my flight was due to leave Viet Nam for Singapore at 5:30 P.M. I had never felt this helpless before. As I stared at the small crowd of people at the landing of the InterShop building, I saw the terror and desperation in their eyes.

If I had stayed any longer, it would have become impossible to leave the city center, or District 1, for the airport, some 7 kilometers away. Traffic in the surrounding area gradually came to a standstill.

I decided to go home even though my heart wanted to stay. When I reached the hotel to pick up my luggage, the doorman pointed out the blood on my arms that I did not realize was there. It was the blood of the few lucky ones who had escaped the inferno. (Sixty victims have now been confirmed dead; another 100 or so hospitalized with a wide range of injuries, from severe burn to broken legs and arms. A good number of the victims suffered severe internal injuries resulted from their leap to survival. Some of the dead bodies have been burnt beyond recognition, awaiting DNA identification, which could take up to one month, for Viet Nam has only one medical lab capable of DNA testing.)

I walked away from this experience shaken and with an image of the Vietnamese people, however unfair, of being cold and callous in times of tragedies. They seemed to watch the spectacle with amusement as if it’s entertainment. The drivers of taxis and private cars nearby, which there were many, did not volunteer to take the victims to the hospitals. A few victims who had fainted had to wait for the only one ambulance that was shuttling back and forth.

Maybe I am naive but I’ve seen fire and a few earthquakes here in California where neighbors jumped in to help with their buckets, garden hoses and shovels. Maybe the Vietnamese watching the InterShop inferno had no means to help put out that fire, their firefighters were themselves under equipped, but they certainly could have helped break the fleeing victims’ fall. The Vietnamese people sure did look like they needed a crash course in what to do in an emergency, besides having some compassion and courage. Maybe they have been trained to take the nonintervention stand until the authorities arrive.

As I sat shaken in the back of the taxi on the way to the airport, the dispatch radio was crackling with conversations among the taxi drivers telling each other to go to the fire because it was “fun to watch” or in Vietnamese “coi vui lam.”

I did not walk away with a good image of my fellow Vietnamese. As a Vietnamese American, I am both disturbed and confused by what I saw. I can’t help it but keep seeing the faces of many of the victims whom I may have met at the Intershop over the years.

(It is now reported by the State-controlled press that in a city of over 7 million residents, only 20 out of the 600 fire fighters were outfitted with uniforms that include gas masks, oxygen tanks and fireproof gears. There were also problems with the water delivery system, which has not been modernized since 1975. Most fire hydrants nearby did not have water so firefighters had to drive almost 3 miles to the Saigon River to draw water.

One incident illustrated Ho Chi Minh City’s firefighting capability, or the lack of it, was the sadly comical story of one fire engine. On the way to the fire scene this fire engine ran out of gas about three miles away. The driver had to use the telephone of a nearby business to call headquarters to bring gas. Two canisters of gas arrived thirty minutes later. The fire truck still could not move for its engine valve was now gas-flooded.)