7 Nepalis killed in Hong Kong fire

Fire raging at the Jire Khursani restaurant on Canton Road in Hong Kong's Yau Ma Tei on 15 November. Photo: ONLINE

It was just after 8pm on 15 November in the Jire Khursani Nepali restaurant in Hong Kong’ Jordan neighbourhood. The popular eatery was lit up for Tihar, and it was crowded with families dining out.

But instead of a festival marked by illumination, it turned out to be a black night for many Nepali families in Hong Kong mourning the seven people who died, and having to care for 13 badly injured in a deadly fire.

The restaurant that night was also a venue for a birthday party, and was full. Suddenly, one of the decorative Diwali lights set the wall near the door alight. The fire spread rapidly because of the sound-proof material that was used to line the wall of the dining area.

The restaurant did not have a fire extinguisher, and no emergency exits. As the flames spread rapidly, instead of calling the emergency services, the guests sent the children to what they thought was the safety of an inner storeroom and tried to put out the flames themselves.

Wounded being rushed to hospital. Photo: ONLINE

Initial investigation has shown that the disaster was the result of carelessness, and the Nepali owners of the restaurant not adhering to Hong Kong’s strict fire and emergency rules.

There are many hole-in-the-wall establishments like this set up by Nepalis living in the former British territory which are registered as ‘clubs’, but actually function as restaurants — and do not have mandatory safety features. Many Nepali families congregate to these eateries to celebrate festivals, holidays and birthdays.

Among the dead on the Sunday night fire on Canton Road was Raju Nepal and his 9-year-old son, Ryan, as well as Yubaraj Kandel and his 13-year-old daughter Kirtika. Club manager Binita Tamang and employees Anita Niraula and Sher Gurung are also among the dead. Binita Tamang’s husband, Mukesh Shrestha is in critical condition. 

“As soon as the fire started, they told the women and children to go to the kitchen and storeroom, and tried to put out the flames themselves,” a relative of one of the dead said.

Among the dead were Raju Nepal and his son, Rayan.
Owner Mukesh Shrestha was critically injured, and his wife Binita Tamang was killed in the fire.

The emergency services arrived within three minutes of being called, but by then the fire had spread through the whole first floor of the building. Since the flames started near the door, there was no escape for the victims, who were found crouched in a corner of the inner rooms. Those who escaped jumped out of the windows to the street below, and some broke their legs. 

This is the deadliest fire in Hong Kong since 2011, when nine people were killed in the Mongkok neighbourhood. The Hong Kong authorities have launched an investigation, and Chief Executive Carrie Lam paid a visit to the site on Monday morning.

With its many residential and office high rises, the Hong Kong authorities take fire safety seriously. However, ‘clubs’ like Jire Khursani do not follow the strict safety requirements because they are not registered as restaurants. There are no evacuation posters, no extinguishers and and no emergency exits. The clubs also do not have any fire insurance.

Reporters covering the fire. Photo: Dambar Krishna Shrestha

Many here say that despite Hong Kong’s strict rules, a fatalistic Nepali attitude which does not give adequate attention to disaster preparedness and prevention results in tragedies like this.

The 15 November fire, they say, will be a reminder to Nepalis here that they have to take disaster preparedness seriously — especially for unregistered establishments which are often crowded with local Nepali families. 

The burnt out remains of the restaurant the next morning. Photo: Jagat Ambu

Many of the 30,000 or so Nepalis in Hong Kong are families or dependants of former soldiers in the Brigade of Gurkhas of the British Army stationed in the territory until 1997, when it was handed over to China. 

Among them, many work on Hong Kong’s construction sites, where ‘Safety First’ is the credo. Many are in fact Safety Supervisors at these sites, and are trained in emergency response. But the same people take their families to unsafe establishments after work. 

Dambar Krishna Shrestha is editor of Everest Khabar monthly.

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