David Wertime

Gruesome Fire in Chinese Shopping Center; Death Toll Still In Doubt

The charred remains of a shopping center. How many inside perished?

If the “rumors” about the number of dead are not mere rumors, then Chinese will long remember the incident already being called “6.30.”

On June 30, a huge fire broke out at a shopping center in Jixian (蓟县) county, a suburb of Tianjin city, and only about an hour’s driving time from Beijing. On-the-scene video shows huge billows of smoke as the shopping plaza burned. Witnesses speaking with television reporters averred that the shopping plaza was the biggest in town; that the third, fourth and fifth floors were particularly crowded, and that the shopping center was unusually crowded on the day that the fire broke out.

Some reports alleged that many shoppers trapped in the fire likely had no way out. Managers at the shopping center had allegedly locked the front door when the fire started, fearful that customers would take advantage of the ensuing chaos to escape with shoplifted items.

Instead, surrounded by flames on all sides, they jumped. A reporter for BJ News (@新京报) reported that many of those trapped on the top floors began to leap from the windows in order to save themselves, creating what witnesses called a “calamitous scene.”

Where were the firefighters? According to Caixin (@财新网), 25 minutes passed between the time an emergency number was dialed and firefighters arrived at the scene. They then discovered that their hoses lacked sufficient water pressure, further delaying the rescue.

While discussion of the tragedy was initially censored on Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo, leading discussants to refer to Tianjin cryptically (and confusingly) as “New York,” direct discussion has since been opened up on Weibo, with over 13,000 comments as of this writing. Nonetheless, searches for the name “Jixian” merely call up the typical censorship notice, which says the term may not be displayed due to “relevant rules and regulations.”

Mourners gathering in Jixian

Netizens share widely held doubts about the veracity of the reported numbers, with some saying as many as 378 perished. That is an oddly precise number given the evident confusion surrounding the blaze, and an alarmingly high one given that an eyewitness reportedly estimated fewer than 20 customers on the complex’s fifth, and apparently top, floor.

More plausibly, many noted that the official list of confirmed dead is comprised entirely of women, reasoning that given the statistical unlikelihood of a death toll comprising only women, names were likely omitted.

The BBC reports that on June 6, hundreds of mourners gathered at the square by the Jixian bell tower, with netizens noting the presence of a multitude of uniformed and plain clothes police at the scene.

Sadly, the lack of a clear death toll even after seven days suggests the current tally may be too optimistic. Given the accretion of such gruesome circumstantial evidence–the scope of the fire, the number of people inside, and the firefighters’ late arrival–it would perversely register as a small relief if “only” ten people had perished. If a large discrepancy emerges between preliminary official tallies and the final truth, it will only add to mistrust of local authorities, who often tend to cover their tracks in the wake of massive tragedies. Yet for the lives of all those caught in the blaze, one can only hope against hope that the Jixian government got it exactly right.

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.