BANGKOK — Investigators said Thursday that two workers in an upscale Bangkok shopping complex were likely forced to jump to their deaths because they were trapped by flames while assisting evacuation.
The initial conclusion came as engineering experts and city officials today went to inspect the scene at the CentralWorld shopping complex, where a fire last night killed two of the mall’s employees and injured 20 others. They said the fire started in one of the basement floors in a neighboring office building that is a part of the shopping complex.
Pichaya Chantaranuwat of the national Engineering Institute, who was assisting the investigation, said it remains unclear what first sparked the fire in the building’s basement.
Teerayuth Phumpak from the city fire department said the fire was likely fueled by wastewater in the building’s sewage system. He also believes the smoke and flames spread to the eighth floor through air vent pipes, which have low heat endurance and broke when they couldn’t expel the heat out quickly enough.
The fire broke out during Bangkok’s evening rush, when the mall would typically be busy with shoppers as well as diners, forcing hundreds of people to flee. Sirens wailed as emergency vehicles tried to move through the congested city’s gridlocked traffic.
Probably the most shocking record of the fire came in the form of an online video showing a man climbing amidst thick smoke to the edge of a window, sitting there for several minutes, before plunging to the ground.
Mall operator Central Pattana confirmed hours later that the two fatalities of the fire, both of whom were seen jumping from the building, were its employees. The operator has promised compensation to their families. One of the men died at the scene, while the other died later at a hospital.
The city’s emergency radio service said 20 people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.
Engineer Pichaya explained that there is evidence to suggest that the two men were in the building assisting others. Air vents where smoke plumed out of the eighth floor were just a few meters away from a fire escape and about 10 meters away from the windows where the two men plunged to their death.
“We believe both victims were trying to put out the fire or help others to flee, or were assigned to be there, making them unable to escape in time when they could’ve done so,” he said. “They should be praised as heroes, because the structure of that floor is quite complex. It would have been difficult to extinguish the fire.”
CentralWorld has come under criticism for its emergency management procedures, after several witnesses complained that they didn’t hear an alarm while fleeing the fire that broke out yesterday evening. The company said today the system was working properly as it was designed that way to ensure a smooth evacuation.
“Because the mall is very big and has several exits, it’s necessary to trigger the alarm only in some sections of the mall to prevent chaos and accidents from panicking crowds during an evacuation,” the mall said in a written statement released today.
Alarms were set off in the two floors of the office building that were affected by the fire. The statement added that the mall has “well-trained” security staff and firefighters deployed across the complex at all hours in case of emergency, and that it immediately began evacuation procedures when the fire broke out.
Some eye-witnesses confirmed hearing the alarm as soon as they saw the smoke.
“I was in the mall and there was a burning smell and smoke started to come out,” said Suthep Damgjiam, who was with a friend. “A fire alarm started to ring and there were announcements on the PA system telling people to evacuate. We came out. There was a lot of smoke, but we didn’t see the fire itself.”
Gov. Aswin Kwanmuang said last night that the administration ordered the closure of the whole complex until the cause of the fire is known. But the mall’s operator earlier today already released a statement confirming authorization to reopen. It said all buildings in the complex except the mall have already resumed operation today. CentralWorld will be open tomorrow pending a cleanup process.
CentralWorld sits at a major intersection surrounded by shopping complexes, shrines and high-rise hotels popular with foreign tourists. It’s near the main junction of Bangkok’s elevated train lines, as well as the Erawan Shrine.
It was among several Bangkok buildings set on fire during mass anti-government protests in 2010 and was closed for months for rebuilding.
The mall is part of one of Thailand’s best-known shopping center chains, which is controlled by the Central Pattana property development company. Central Pattana is a division of the family-owned Central Group holding company.
Additional reporting Associated Press