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2009 New Year’s Eve fire in Bangkok

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A PUB CELEBRATION ON NEW YEAR’S Eve in Bangkok, Thailand, ended in tragedy when a fire – just minutes after the countdown to 2009 – rapidly destroyed the entire building, resulting in 59 dead at the scene, seven subsequent fatalities among 35 persons hospitalised in intensive care units, and more than 200 other injured persons.  Initial findings indicated that the blaze was probably caused by an indoor ‘New Year’ firework show started at the end of the 2008 countdown.

The fireworks apparently flash ignited ceiling decorations and carpeting. Shortly afterwards thick smoke engulfed the cavernous building and the electrical supply for lighting failed. Within about 10 minutes, the pub was ablaze from end to end. Santika, one of the city’s most popular nightspots, was holding its last party before closing, as its lease had expired. With more than 1,000 revellers and staff in the building, the conflagration caused a huge stampede for the pub’s main entrance, which was just 2.18 metres wide. There were two smaller exits, but few people headed for them. Many were trampled while others were quickly overcome by smoke. Some ten fire appliances plus emergency rescue teams reached the scene quickly, but were unable to get inside the building immediately because of the intense flames.

The fire was brought under control after about an hour, but firefighters and emergency crews attempting to enter the premises were hampered by smoke and a possible structural instability. Police have ruled out arson as the pub’s insurance coverage had expired four months prior to the fire. Six suspects have been identified in the case. The lead vocalist in the pub’s rock band ‘Burn’ has been charged with causing the fire, the resultant deaths and injuries, and mental trauma of the survivors, by his actions of lighting the fireworks on stage during the countdown.He has denied the charges and has been released on bail.

In addition, a major Santika shareholder has been charged with recklessness leading to deaths and injuries, and with allowing persons aged less than 20 years to enter the pub. He has denied the charges and has been released on bail. The pub’s manager, marketing manager and entertainment manager have been charged with recklessness leading to deaths and injuries, and have been released without bail after denying the charges. Police were still searching for the sixth suspect, the managing director of Santika operator White & Brothers (2003) Co, as CRJ went to press. The police charges against the lead vocalist have since been disputed, however, by a Justice Ministry investigation panel after it acquired surveillance camera film that showed he had left the stage before the fire started and that he did not set off the fireworks, which were ignited by an electronic device.Justice Minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga claimed that the police investigation: “was riddled with flaws”, and that he had proposed the ministry’s Department of Special Investigation take over the case.

‘DANGEROUS FLAWS’

The final investigation report was still being written as CRJ went to press. An initial inspection by crime scene investigators, public works officials, and experts from the Engineering Institute of Thailand (EIT), the Building Safety Inspectors and Officers Association (BSA) and the Association of Siamese Architects (ASA) revealed a number of highly dangerous flaws in the building:

● The main entrance/exit and the other two smaller exits were inadequate for the 400m2 building (approx) and could have safely handled no more than 400 persons in such an emergency;

● The premises were full of highly-flammable materials such as polystyrene foam, fi breglass, plastic and resin products;

● The floor-to-ceiling windows were blocked by curved steel grillwork;

● Safety glass was not used in windows and doors, resulting in razor-sharp shards;

● No basic emergency equipment – sprinkler system, heat and smoke detectors, fire alarm system, emergency lighting, and escape signs – had been installed; and

● Although several used fire extinguishers were found on the floor, they had obviously been useless in containing such a large fire.

bangkokfs.jpgASA President Mr Thaweejit Chandrasakha said the pub’s construction permit, issued in 2003 by Watthana district (in which Santika was located), needed to be checked, as it would be a key in pinpointing who was to be held responsible: “We need to know whether the building was being used for the purpose given in the permit. If the permit was issued for a public premises or entertainment venue, the owner was obliged to follow high safety standard regulations. If it was meant for private use, for which safety requirements would be less stringent, the question arises as to why the building was being used for public entertainment purposes.” However, he added: “It was apparent that the owner of Santika had failed to observe the regulations as the building lacked a standard fire prevention/control system and inferior construction materials had been used. In addition, the interior design may have contributed to the large number of persons killed and injured.” Watthana district offi cials initially refused to provide details of the permit as it had been issued during the term of the previous District Chief. One offi cial even claimed that the construction blueprint submitted for approval could not be found. A Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) investigating committee has since found that the construction did not match the design plan and that district offi cials had been negligent in inspecting construction work.

Subsequently, BMA City Clerk ordered the current Watthana District Chief and his predecessor to inactive posts at City Hall, pending the completion of the inquiry into the fire; the current Chief had earlier been transferred to another district after failing to inspect the building’s construction. However, BMA Public Works Department Chief said earlier that the owner of the building might escape charges of violating the Building Control Act as the pub was not a ‘controlled building’ under the law. Currently, two main laws regulate entertainment venues: the Building Control Act and the Entertainment Venue Act. The former concerns construction and safety requirements (including fire prevention and control) while the latter covers operation of such venues. He said the building had originally been registered as a private residence, but the owner had later requested a change to an entertainment venue. However, he said he had no idea whether the police had approved such a change.

EIT President Mr Prasong Tharachai has announced that he will submit the EIT/ASA/BSA findings to the Prime Minister and will request a revision of the Building Control Act to ensure better ways of dealing with violations of safety regulations. Apart from clarifying the conditions of the construction permit, confusion exists over whether the pub had received an operating licence. Police General Jongrak Chuthanont, Deputy National Police Chief, said in early January that an application for the licence had been submitted to the police in 2004, but that it had been rejected as construction had not been completed.

LICENSING

The Deputy BMA City Clerk explained that the Administrative Court had granted an injunction on July 2, 2004, for temporary operation pending a final ruling. However, she noted, issuance of the final licence remained the prerogative of the police: “who were in dispute with the owner of the building.” The dispute most likely refers to a 2004 court injunction sought by Santika over the delay by police in issuing an operating licence, as well as the arrest of the owner for running the pub without a permit. The Office of the Attorney-General later said the charges were dropped as public prosecutors found the Santika executives “had done nothing wrong”. Later, police filed 47 criminal charges between 2004 and 2006 against Santika executives for operating an entertainment venue without a licence, and for selling liquor during prohibited hours. However, the Justice Ministry investigation panel found that the police raids and arrests of Santika executives stopped abruptly, allegedly shortly after a Deputy Chief of the police Crime Suppression Division became a pub shareholder on September 17, 2006.

The panel has implicated pub executives and government officials in the failure to pay excise taxes, or signboard and land taxes to the Watthana District Office or income tax to the Revenue Department for the past five years. The panel concluded that major shareholder Mr Wisuk must be held responsible for changing the building type from private residence to entertainment venue without permission. The panel also found that the signatures of the engineers who designed the building and supervised construction had been falsified, and that there was evidence Santika had possibly been used as a venue for illicit drug dealing and money laundering. Meanwhile, in what is seen as a test case, a lawsuit by a survivor of the fire demanding Baht 6 million (£125,000; $181,704; €141,279) has been accepted by the Bangkok Civil Court. The plaintiff has named 33 shareholders and Santika operator, White & Brothers (2003) Co as defendants.

Article originally published in Volume 5 Issue 2 of the Crisis Response Journal.

See article in its original pdf format below.


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