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    15 Dead in Nanjing Apartment Fire, Electric Bikes Under Scanner

    Municipal authorities have announced a thorough investigation into safety hazards in high-rise buildings, commercial spaces, and other densely populated areas.

    A devastating fire in a high-rise residential building early Friday morning in eastern China’s city of Nanjing left 15 people dead and another 44 injured, including one individual in critical condition.

    Liang Jun, the head of the Nanjing Fire Rescue Brigade, said at a news conference Saturday that the fire started on the ground floor of the building where several electric bicycles were parked.

    The tragedy further underscores the escalating safety risks posed by electric bicycles in densely populated urban communities. While regulations prohibit the parking or charging of electric bicycles in public areas of high-rise buildings, enforcement still remains a challenge, exacerbated by insufficient charging stations and the improper storage of such vehicles.

    Following the incident, Nanjing authorities announced a thorough investigation into safety hazards in high-rise buildings, commercial spaces, and other densely populated areas. They aim to address high-risk activities such as blocking fire evacuation routes, indoor charging of electric bicycles, and the use of unsafe wiring for charging.

    According to municipal authorities, the fire was reported at 4:39 a.m. at the Mingshang Xiyuan community in Nanjing’s Yuhuatai District, where 762 people reside in the affected 34-story building. It was extinguished by 6:01 a.m.

    The blaze started on an open floor connected to the building’s atrium. “After the fire ignited on the ground floor, a chimney effect accelerated the spread, with multiple combustible materials along the chimney wall intensifying the blaze. It then spread through windows into the building, causing an indoor fire,” Zhou Guanglian, a senior engineer from the Jiangsu Provincial Fire and Rescue Corps, told state broadcaster CCTV.

    Social media photos and videos showed the fire reaching the building’s middle and upper levels, damaging a large section of the exterior. While domestic media outlet Red Star News published photos of several charred vehicles on the ground floor, the fire also damaged outdoor air conditioning units and windows, with smoke traces visible above the second floor.

    The significant number of casualties was partly due to the fire breaking out while most residents were asleep. According to Zhou, the electric bicycle explosion produced an intense blaze and also released toxic gases — from the burning of seat cushions and the lithium-ion batteries used in electric bicycles — further complicating firefighting efforts.

    The situation was also exacerbated by fire doors that were left open for convenience, which allowed the fire and smoke to spread more easily.

    Incidentally, this isn’t the first electric bike-related fire in the area. Domestic media reported that residents in the same community recalled a similar incident in 2019, which did not result in any injuries.

    Moreover, local media and residents have previously raised concerns over the safety risks posed by the increasing number of electric bicycles parked on the building’s open floor.
    In 2022, a report highlighted that more than 180 electric vehicles were parked overnight in one building within the same community, leading to calls for updated fire safety measures.

    At the time, the community’s property management had stated that the open area was not designed for electric vehicle parking and that it lacked smoke sprinkler systems. They also vowed to consult professionals on adding additional fire safety equipment.

    According to the China Bicycle Association, by the end of 2022, there were 350 million two-wheeled electric bicycles in China — or one electric bicycle for every four individuals.

    However, the number of reported electric bicycle fire accidents have also surged, with 21,000 cases in 2023, an increase of 17.4% from the previous year. Of these, 80% of fires occurred during charging, of which more than half took place at night. Lobbies, corridors, and stairwells accounted for 90% of electric bicycle fire incidents that resulted in casualties.

    Yang Zhimin, a Shenzhen Housing and Construction Bureau official, stated that the management of electric vehicles presents a new challenge. “In many existing communities, the infrastructure for parking and charging electric vehicles was not considered during construction, so they often lack a corresponding safety plan,” Yang told domestic media.

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: The damaged building in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Feb. 24, 2024. VCG)