The operator and two staff of a hotel used for quarantine have been indicted on charges of negligent homicide, and negligent injury, following an inquiry into a fire in building that left four people dead and 22 injured in Changhua City, Taiwan, June 2021.
See previous story: Four dead including one firefighter in COVID quarantine hotel fire
The Changhua District Prosecutor’s Office charged Cai Jinfeng, Shen Yiqian, and Wu Songrong, after finding that they did not immediately notify the quarantined residents to evacuate. Instead, they turned off the fire alarm, and told residents to stay in their rooms and keep their doors closed.
According to the investigation, at around 7:30 pm, June 30, a discarded cigarette butt began to smoulder under the northwest side elevators on the second floor of the 15-storey Qiaoyou Building, Changhua City.
At 7:47 pm, a fire alarm sounded in the Passion Fruit Hotel, located on the 7th to 9th floors. The 61-year-old operator of the hotel, Cai Jinfeng, walked the 7th, 8th, and 9th floors, and detecting no fire, used the public address system to inform the 29 quarantined residents “During the fire alarm test, don’t panic.”
Cai then turned off the power of the alarm switchboard.
While tenants believed that the fire warning had been lifted, Cai and Wu Songrong, 80, walked the three floors of the hotel again. Leaving the fire escape doors open, they placed large plastic buckets, and fire extinguishers to block the exits on the 7th and 8th floors.
Cai then went down to the sixth floor, where he spotted smoke emanating from the ceiling, and detected a burning smell. Meanwhile, the hotel’s accountant, Shen Yiqian, 48, saw smoke on the first floor of the building via a security monitor on the hotel front desk.
But neither Cai, Wu, nor Shen informed the residents, causing the guests to miss the opportunity to evacuate in time, according to the investigation report.
Changhua County Fire Department received the first reports of the fire at 7:48 pm and dispatched 26 fire trucks and 14 ambulances to the scene.
According to the investigation report, Cai and Shen knew there was a fire in the building when they each took a fire extinguisher and prepared to go downstairs. On the way, they met two tenants, a man named Zeng and his son. Zeng asked Cai and Shen whether he and his son should go up the stairs or down. The Zeng’s followed Cai and Shen down to the first floor.
The report stated that Cai confirmed there was a fire when he reached the first floor, but did not notify Wu, who was at the hotel’s front desk, to notify and evacuate the residents. Shen returned to the 7th floor and shouted at residents who had left their rooms to go back to their rooms and close the doors against the smoke, while firefighters take care of the problem.
The prosecution’s indictment noted that Cai and Shen had left the fire escape doors open, allowing smoke to flow into the 7th and 8th floors, and had not notified the residents to evacuate in time, resulting in the tragedy of four deaths, and 22 injuries. The deaths included that of a firefighter, Chen Zhifan, whose oxygen supply ran out while he was attempting to rescue the residents. Chen had entered one of the guest rooms, which had no external windows, and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
In a video recorded by one of the residents, a 59-year-old man named Chen, Chen says “there was a fire alarm just now, but the boss said it was a false alarm … but it doesn’t seem to be a false alarm. I don’t know whether I can run or not … I’m afraid to run … If we go out, we will have to pay fines … will we die in this fire?”
Chen, an indigenous Taiwanese of the Atayal ethnic group who had returned to Taiwan after serving as a missionary in Thailand, was one of three residents who died in their quarantine rooms. Chen’s video was used as evidence by the prosecutors to further prove that Cai and the others had not notified the residents of the correct information, thereby delaying their chance to escape.
The three quarantined residents who died were Mr Chen, a 34-year-old man named Ni, and a 43-year-old female Indonesian migrant worker who was not named in media reports. The Indonesian woman had previously tested positive for COVID-19, had been released from hospital isolation, and was in the quarantine hotel during the “self-health management” period when she died of smoke inhalation.
The Indonesian national’s death is counted among the 848 people who have “died of COVID” in Taiwan. When Taiwan English News contacted the Taiwan Centers for Disease control for clarification about the fact that someone who had died of asphyxiation during a fire disaster was counted as a “COVID death,” the CDC replied: “With regard to the number of COVID-19 deaths released on the Taiwan CDC website, we present counts of deaths from all causes of death, including COVID-19.”
[Names in this report are pinyin transcriptions from the original Chinese.]
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