10 People Died In An Apartment Fire In Xinjiang. Their Doors Were Locked From The Outside Because Of Covid Restrictions.
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Several people were killed and others injured in a fire at a residential building in northwest China's Xinjiang region, authorities said on Friday. (AP photo)
On Douyin, TikTok's Chinese parent company, a video went viral on Friday: a high-rise apartment building on fire. A nearby fire truck sprayed water at the building from a distance, but the jet of water stopped before it reached the actual flames. "Open the door, open the door," yelled a voice from inside the building. "Somebody save us."
The emergency response Thursday after a deadly fire in Urumqi, capital of a western Chinese province called Xinjiang, has been the focus of outrage on social media since Thursday night. The city fire department identified the source of the fire as a power strip that caught fire in a bedroom on the 15th floor.
Government estimates of the casualties put the number dead at 10 and the number injured at 9, but residents dispute these figures and say the real number was higher. Three of the dead were children, authorities admit. Abdulhafız Muhammed Emin, a Uyghur Muslim living in exile in Switzerland, told the Associated Press he learned over the phone that his aunt and her four children had died in the fire.
"She was a wonderful woman who always thought about her children and how to treat and raise them well," he said through tears. "My heart is really broken, I can't take it."
Thousands have protested both online and on the streets, calling on the government to relax the country's strict Covid prevention measures.
Residents in the building had been under lockdown for over 100 days when the fire broke out as part of China's zero-Covid policy, a global strategy to minimize Covid infections through contact tracing, mass testing, lockdown and border quarantine - which China has been dealing with for extended shutdowns and taken to an extreme level with minimal communication. An unnamed resident in the neighborhood told BBC News that the area has been under construction since March 7.
"We Xinjiang people don't dare go down the stairs without permission as it is against the law even if the building gate is unlocked," he said. Fire-related disasters have been a concern for local residents throughout the implementation of the Zero Covid Policy; Earlier this week, a factory fire in Henan province killed 38 people and injured two.
China News Service / China News Service via Getty Images
The Chinese leadership has faced a global backlash over its crackdown and mass arrests of Uyghur, Kazakh and other Chinese Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, which it continues to deny. Many Urumqi residents have faced harsh lockdown conditions, few opportunities to leave the country and dwindling food and medical supplies, according to citizens' social media reports. Many of the victims are suspected of belonging to the Muslim minority in Xinjiang.
China's state-run Xinhua News Agency said the fire broke out around 7:49 p.m. Thursday night and was extinguished at 11:35 p.m.
Online users questioned the three-hour response time and wondered if the particularly strict Covid measures were lengthening the rescue process. Hashtags related to the disaster were viewed over 2.3 million times as of Saturday afternoon. Videos on social media platforms WeChat and Weibo immediately went viral, allegedly showing the building's doors locked from the outside with metal wires or wooden dowels, preventing residents from exiting the building. A resident told the Associated Press these makeshift barricades have been deployed elsewhere in the city as part of the local government's zero-Covid effort.
Videos verified by Reuters show people marching together, many wearing masks, raising their fists in the air and chanting "End the Lockdown". Another showed protesters in a plaza singing China's national anthem, with the lyrics "Rise up that refuse to be slaves." Others shared videos of people clashing with riot police.
"History keeps repeating itself and it's the common poor who pay the price," wrote one Weibo commenter.
In a rare move, Ürümqi Mayor Memtimin Qadir apologized to the city's population during a press conference on Friday night, offered condolences to the victims and announced an investigation. Still, the government pushed back the swirling online criticism. Li Wensheng, the head of the fire department, denied that Covid restrictions played a role in the response.
"Some residents' ability to save themselves was too weak ... and they were unable to escape," he said. Li also said narrow alleys with parked cars made it difficult for fire engines to gain access to the building.
The government's response has only fueled public anger, with many poking fun at the officials' comments. "Sorry we thought the rescue team was going to save us," one wrote. Others have pointed out that the distance between the fire station and the building is less than a kilometer, even bringing up Li's earlier statement that first responders arrived within five minutes.
On Saturday morning, Ürümqi's propaganda minister Sui Rong announced they were easing lockdown restrictions on the city as they had "reached basically zero Covid" due to the lockdown measures. The city will be raised "in stages," Rong said, dividing neighborhoods by "level of risk" and beginning to let more people outside. There was no clarity on the timeframe for a full relaxation of lockdown or the number of people allowed to leave the country. Officials did not confirm the previous night's demonstrations but said "order is being restored" to residents' lives.
China's information censors have blocked most critical posts about the fire by suppressing certain hashtags and keywords, but users continue to post articles about the fire using unblocked words in the captions, such as "okay," "good," and " right” to show their support.
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