(CNN) The worst fire to hit the Chinese capital in two decades killed 29 people at a hospital on Tuesday, but most people hadn’t heard about it until hours later, and details were slim as officials kept a tight lid on the details.
Flames engulfed Changfeng Hospital in Fengtai District Tuesday from 1 p.m., State media remained silent and censored, forcing some to hastily climb out of windows and huddle in air conditioning units. seemed to sweep Any web of references.
The amount of information control and censorship came It came as a shock to Internet users and Beijing residents, many of whom reported online that they had not seen a deadly fire break out in their city until Tuesday night.
On Wednesday, Beijing officials provided more details about the fire during a news conference that was delayed by half an hour and lasted less than 20 minutes.
Zhao Yang, an official with Beijing’s fire department, said on Wednesday that the fire at the inpatient building of Changfeng Hospital was caused by sparks from interior renovation work that ignited flammable paint.
12 people including 12 were arrested on suspicion of carelessness Director of the hospital and construction workers, said Sun Haidao, an official of the Beijing Public Security Bureau.
In videos shared on social media on Tuesday — Before they were censored – smoke could be seen billowing from many hospital windows as people desperately tried to escape the fire. At least one person used a rope made of bedsheets to descend from a window onto a lower-level terrace.
Others can be found hiding in air conditioning units positioned on the outside of buildings or trying to use the units to maneuver themselves from one level to the next. One was seen jumping from one level of the building to the lower terrace.
The number of fires in Beijing in recent years has surpassed that of a 2017 fire that killed 19 people in a two-story building in Daxing District, a southern suburb of the capital.
It was one of the most heavily censored incidents in recent years — and a sign of tightening controls on the media in China under President Xi Jinping, the country’s most authoritarian leader in a generation.
‘The Terrible Silence’
The fire broke out in a busy neighborhood in western Beijing around noon on Tuesday, but was not reported by Chinese media until about eight hours after firefighters responded to calls for help.
At 8:43 p.m., Beijing Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese capital, published a scathing report on the incident, more than 5 hours after the fire was extinguished and more than 7 hours of rescue operations.
On Chinese social media, many questioned why the public was kept in the dark for so long.
“The incident took place after 12 noon, and not a single media outlet reported on the major news at that time,” said a top comment on Weibo, adding that most state-run media outlets only carry standardized news releases after 9pm.
“The media have now essentially become copy machines for standardized press releases,” it added.
China’s social media platforms, which have been quick to spread information about similar incidents in the past, have largely remained silent. About the fire all afternoon.
Information control is unusual due to the popularity of short video platforms and livestreaming platforms, especially in China.
“It’s often said that it was difficult to stop the spread of news when everyone had a microphone, but now it seems it’s not so difficult,” said one commenter on WeChat.
“Even though 21 people have died, it’s as if nothing happened in the community unless (authorities) announce it,” the commentator said, as the death toll rose to 29 on Tuesday.
At a short news conference on Wednesday, officials revealed the details of the dead. Among them were 26 inpatients with an average age of 71 years. The oldest of the victims was 88. A nurse, a maintenance worker and a family also died in the fire, said Li Chongrong, vice chairman of the Fengtai District Government.
A total of 142 people were evacuated, including 71 patients. As of Wednesday, 39 injured people were in hospital, three in critical condition, said Li Ang, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Heath Commission.
Family members of patients at Changfeng Hospital said that even as the tragedy unfolded, they had forgotten.
On Tuesday evening, some rushed to the hospital to look for their loved ones after learning about it on the news, according to China Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper.
“Seven or eight hours passed and I didn’t get a phone call,” one relative is quoted as saying.
But the hospital refused to give them a list of names of the victims, instead asking them to record their information and wait for an official notification, the report said.
Following state media coverage of the incident, social media discussions were severely curtailed. Footage and photos of the fire were censored in real time Posts criticizing the government’s handling of the fire and Subsequent audit.
Many questioned why the incident was not a trending topic on Weibo throughout Tuesday and Wednesday morning.
They compared the fire’s limited social media visibility to the massive coverage of a fatal explosion at an Ohio metals plant in the US in February, which dominated Weibo trending topics for days.
Although some Chinese media have published in-depth reports on the aftermath of the fire, the initial, long silence has come as a shock to some liberal Chinese journalists.
On Wechat, a newspaper editor in Beijing lamented the society’s tight grip on censorship and control.
“The most horrifying thing is not the death of the 29 people, but the eight hours of silence,” the author wrote in a post.
“The former is an accident and dereliction of duty, while the latter is deliberate with full effort, to dishonestly display the power of social control, to treat the deaf, blind, stupid and useless citizens. Accidents may be prevented, but deliberate action may become the norm.”