Fire in Thailand toy factory leaves 210 dead: No alarms or fire escapes in buildings that collapsed within 15 minutes as 4,000 workers changed shifts

'HOW COULD you let this happen?' the Thai Prime Minister, Chuan Leekpai, asked a provincial engineer at the scene of the deadliest factory fire in history, where more than 200 bodies had been found by last night. 'You allow them to run a factory like this without inspection.' The engineer did not answer.

Thai Interior Ministry officials said yesterday that 210 bodies had been recovered from the ruins of a toy factory on the outskirts of Bangkok, where workers earned pounds 80 to pounds 105 a month making dolls and soft toys, such as stuffed rabbits, elephants and pigs. Of the dead, 188 were women and 14 were men, while eight bodies were burned beyond recognition.

The fire broke out on Monday afternoon, and quickly engulfed the factory's four four-storey buildings, which collapsed only 15 minutes later. Relatives of the dead said the factory had no fire escapes. Alarms were either not fitted or failed to work. A police inspector told Mr Chuan that initial investigations showed one of the factory exit doors had been locked, and an assistant police chief described the buildings as 'obviously sub- standard'.

The blaze is believed to have started when sparks from a short-circuit ignited synthetic materials used to stuff toys. Because shifts were changing at the time, some 4,000 employees were in the buildings. Emergency workers said many bodies were found piled in narrow corridors leading to the exits or near stairs that collapsed under the weight of fleeing people.

Thailand's Board of Investment identified the operator of the factory as Kader Industrial (Thailand) Ltd, in which a Hong Kong company, KCP Toys, holds a large stake. Gary Conrad, chairman of the British Toy Importers' Association, said Kader mainly made toys to customers' designs for sale under their own brand names and was sure to have had outlets in Britain.

Thailand is one of the 'tiger' economies in the world's fastest-growing region. Thousands of people arrive in Bangkok each week from the impoverished rural north to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for unskilled workers at thousands of labour-intensive factories. The competitiveness of such plants depends on minimal regulation as well as low wages and the country has suffered several disasters as economic expansion outstrips official controls.

In September 1990, a truck carrying two large gas cylinders overturned in one of Bangkok's main intersections. Leaking gas caught fire and incinerated scores of cars waiting at a traffic light, killing 91 people. Five months later, 171 people were killed as they loitered around an overturned truck carrying dynamite. Police believe one of them was smoking. The crash of a Lauda-Air flight shortly after taking off from Bangkok in May 1991 claimed 223 lives, and 119 Buddhist pilgrims were killed last year when a ferry to an offshore shrine collided with an oil tanker.

The previous worst factory blaze was at New York's Triangle Shirtwaist plant on 25 March 1911. Most of the 145 victims were female garment workers locked in a factory loft. The highest fire toll in recent history was 400 in a cinema set alight in Abadan, Iran, in August 1978.

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