At least 21 people died after a fire erupted in a hospital in Beijing on Tuesday, forcing patients trapped inside to cram up against windows, awaiting rescue, while at least one jumped to a roof below to escape the flames and smoke. The fire appeared to be the deadliest in the Chinese capital in the past two decades.
It broke out in an inpatient building of the Changfeng Hospital in the city’s south at just before 1 p.m., and firefighters had largely put out the flames within less than 40 minutes, said the brief official report issued by the Beijing Daily, the city’s official newspaper. Dozens of patients were evacuated, but by early evening 21 people had died, apparently from the flames and dense smoke.
The death count may still rise, and the official report did not say whether any bodies may be left in the building. The toll already surpassed a fire in the Daxing District of Beijing in 2017 that killed 19 people in a cramped apartment building housing migrant workers. In 2002, a fire at an internet cafe in the city killed 25.
The latest disaster is a blow to the Chinese capital, which has been returning to normality after nearly three years of heavy pandemic controls were lifted, giving way to a sometimes deadly wave of Covid infections last year. Official Chinese media reported on the fire late in the evening, many hours after it had been extinguished, in an apparent reflection of the authorities’ sensitivity about public anger over the grim news.
Yin Li, the Communist Party secretary for Beijing, visited the site of the fire and said that the authorities would pursue whoever was found culpable, the Beijing Daily reported.
“This fire is heart-rending, and its lessons are utterly profound,” said Mr. Yin, who as party secretary outranks the mayor. “This is a warning bell for us, reminding us that there cannot be the least slackening in work safety.”
In November, an apartment fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang region in western China, killed 10 people and prompted protests across China, where many blamed the deaths on pandemic restrictions that impeded residents and firefighters.
On Chinese social media platforms, such as Weibo, residents shared pictures and snippets of footage that showed how the fire in Beijing engulfed much of the building, leaving many inside with no time or avenues of quick escape.
Smoke billowed from the windows, while people inside shouted for help, some leaning out of windows. Other footage showed a man climbing out of a window, down some blankets and dropping onto nearby roof. A picture showed the white-tiled exterior of the hospital building heavily charred by the flames and smoke.
Messages that shared the footage on social media platforms often quickly disappeared after they were issued. The Chinese government has become adept at swiftly censoring news in an effort to to quell public anger and questions about disasters. Some on social media asked why it took so long for the Beijing government to release news of the fire.
“Even if this had not happened in the capital, shouldn’t the public have a basic right to know about a fire disaster that killed 21 people,” said one comment on WeChat, a Chinese social media service.
Zixu Wang contributed reporting from Hong Kong.