Huge death toll feared in Ho Chi Minh City blaze

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The Independent Online

At least 59 people died in Vietnam yesterday after fire raged through a six-storey commercial building in Ho Chi Minh City housing offices of foreign companies, shops and a nightclub.

At least 59 people died in Vietnam yesterday after fire raged through a six-storey commercial building in Ho Chi Minh City housing offices of foreign companies, shops and a nightclub. Two Britons were among the victims.

Eyewitnesses said some people died after jumping out of windows several storeys up to escape the inferno.

Police suspect the fire started on the second floor of the International Business Centre, in the Blue Disco – the city's most popular dance spot, where a wedding reception was taking place.

Five hours after the fire started, firefighters were still unable to enter the complex because of intense heat. One person could be seen at a window desperately trying to summon rescuers, but they said they did not have the equipment to reach him.

Dozens of people were feared trapped inside, and emergency services warned that the death toll was likely to rise. The building had just one fire escape and it took firefighters more than three hours to get suitable ladders to the scene.

It was not clear how many foreigners died in the blaze. More than 100 people were taken to hospital, many with serious injuries. Vietnamese officials said at least one unidentified foreign man was among the fatalities.

The building, in the heart of the commercial district of Vietnam's biggest city, has several floors of shops, about 50 offices and a restaurant on the top storey. About 500 people were believed to be inside at the time of the fire, which was largely extinguished by early evening. Companies from Britain, Australia, America, Belgium, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand had offices in the complex.

The Blue Disco, the suspected source of the fire, had been recently attacked in the state-controlled press for allegedly condoning "social evils" such as drug use. The city's mayor, Le Thanh Hai, said the cause was not yet known.

Tran Trung Dung, an employee of Saigon Tourist, said: "I heard lots of screaming and shouting from inside the building. I saw lots of people jumping from the windows. It was a bloody scene."

Eyewitnesses said firefighters had difficulty reaching the building because of the narrow streets of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon, and were hampered by a shortage of water. The electricity supply in the area was cut off.

The American insurance giant, American International Assurance Company, said one of its staff was dead, six were missing and about 30 were injured. It had been conducting a training session on the fifth floor for about 140 insurance agents at the time of the fire.

Nguyen Thi Ngoc Ha, who was attending the training course, said from her hospital bed at the District One Emergency Centre that she escaped by climbing down a drainpipe. "As soon as we smelt the fire, everyone started panicking and tried to rush out of the room," she said. "People were pushing and getting crushed, so I went to a window and climbed down."

The fire broke out at about 1.30pm local time and burnt for about five hours. Some people escaped on to roofs of adjacent buildings and then climbed down steel ladders to the fire trucks. Firefighters were waiting to send teams into the building to search for survivors and recover bodies.

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