Major Bangkok Fires in a Month: Happened Too Close for Comfort

The Engineering Institute of Thailand (EIT) under H.M. the King's Patronage

Hello there. We meet again in this “Zoom In” section. In this issue, I am trying hard to tone down this section for our audience because I seem to always be a bearer of bad news ranging from natural disaster, worst building fire, etc.

In the case of Fico Tower fire, it was happened on Saturday’s afternoon of March 3, 2012. Fico Tower is a 13-story high building situated among same size or even taller buildings leaving every tight and populated traffic space between each skyscraper. It is a great challenge for fire fighters to reach this burning building. With limited accessible space to work on, the authorities were unable to access and extinguish the origin of fire with their limited equipment. The small fire truck at the scene did not have the capability to reach that high and backup and properly-equipped trucks were called in to help reach the higher up stories. At the fire, another obstacle was the electronic keycard-operated entrance that was automatically shut down due to loss of electricity. By the time the fire fighters got the permission to break into the locked glass door, the fire was burning furiously and reached the top floor (13th floor).  It took full 3 hours for the fire brigades to have total control of this FICO Tower fire.

The post-incident analysis report of the FICO Tower fire by EIT (The Engineering Institute of Thailand under H.M. the King's Patronage) revealed the following facts:

1. Presumably, the origin of the fire incidence was started at proximity of the north side on the 7th floor. The fire expanded to other areas on this floor before burning upwards. The heat from the burning flame penetrated the glass walls onto the aluminum structure attached to the building. From that point on, the fire spread out to the 8th and 9th floors and covered all areas on both floors. The fire damage from the 10th to 13th floors was only partial. Possibly the contained damage was due to the fact that the fire fighters were able to control the fire at that stage. 

2. All the property assets, furniture, ceiling structure, and building utilities from floor 7 to 13 were totally ruined.

3. The concrete foundation of the building was still intact. Only minor damages of the concrete beams from fire were inspected. It is unlikely that the building will collapse as a result of the weakened concrete structure from the extreme fire heat of the incident. 

4. The glass curtain walls of the building, including burned aluminum frames and charred debris (e.g., ceiling, air duct, downlight fixtures, etc.), can be detached and blown from the fire site. It was highly recommended to construct exterior scaffolds, board it up and provide safety nets to prevent the pedestrians from fallen debris immediately.

5. The integrity of the building is subject to thoroughly inspected and verified according to universally-accept building codes or certified bodies prior to use after renovation.

6. Despite the exemption from Thai building codes number 33 and 47, the building owner should consider the risks and safety concerns by not following those building codes. It was highly recommended to improve the automatic building fire extinguishing system, the floor to floor fire retention barriers, fire exits and escapes, fire sensors and smoke detectors, and integrated fire monitoring system so that these safety measures are up-to-date to the most recent fire prevention codes. 

The other case was the major fire incident at the Grand Park Avenue hotel at the dawn of March 8, 2012. This big fire was taken place around 4 am started at the 5th floor in the ball room. This hotel is located on Sukhumvit 22, North Klong Toey, Wattana district in Bangkok. The fire was spread out rather quickly to adjacent areas and other floors with dark and thick black smoke. The hotel guests were trying to flee for their lives. It was a total chaos at the scene of the incident. The fire fighters and disaster relieve crews were rush to cease the fire rage and assist the victims. An ad hoc team was promptly assigned to control the fire and the mission was accomplished within 20 minutes. The other team was set up to assist the fire truck lift and evacuate the hotel guests struck on the upper floors. The last batch of fire victims, mostly foreigners, was safely transferred successfully from the 15th floor.

There were 22 injured guests from this fire incident. Two deaths were Russian tourists, 40- year-old female and 45-year-old male victims. They both were rushed to the hospital and remained unconscious when discovered on the 7th floor of the hotel. The victims were suffocated from the fire smoke. The blood stains at the scene indicated that they were brutally cut by shape edges and injured prior to their deaths.

Mr. Pitchaya Juntranuwat, the president of the Engineering Institute of Thailand under H.M. the King's Patronage, arrived at the fire site and gave a few useful suggestions as follows:

1. The hotel has installed the main fire escapes and exits next to the elevators and the ball room. However, there were no fire-proof partition walls or smoke-proof fire exit doors between floors. As a result, the dense smoke can leak to other floors and fill in the entire hotel rapidly. This is a recipe for disaster similar to the past incident at the Jomtein Hotel in Pattaya. The same fire incidents with poor building designs produce a lot of death tolls among countless injuries. This is a classic mishap prone to old buildings where the fire escape system has no partitions and fire exit doors. 

2. The room arrangement in this hotel is divided into 3 wings. Nevertheless there is only one ladder system for the main fire escape that has poor layout and very narrow. Besides, this emergency fire escape is only closer to one wing of the building and distant away from the other two. When the fire erupted, all guests from all wings were rushed to the same fire exits, which were more than 10 meters away. This type of the fire escape design violate the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s building codes (2001)

3. The fire started in the area of the ball room on the 5th floor where all the decor and furniture, including floor carpet, were easy to catch fire causing the fire to expend to other areas. At the time of the incident, that room was not in function. The hotel fire monitoring system alarmed and showed the indication of fire that triggered the hotel staffs to investigate the scene. The witnesses said there was a large volume of thick smoke released from the ball room. The post fire analysis report suggests most of the fire damage was in the ball room itself. Other areas in the 5th and 6th floors were partially affected.

Police Colonel Rattasak Raksalam (superintendent of the Thonglor police station) further explained that the owner of the hotel building was automatically a suspect and to be prosecuted. There are three components to this case.

1. Criminal charges : Preliminary indictment is the act of negligence, which causes deaths to other persons. The charge requires more evidences and witnesses to press charges against the owner. If the committees receive the proofs of evidence from lab analyses, the official indictment can be released within 3 days and the alleged suspect names will be included.

2. Violation of the city building codes : Authorities from Bangkok Metropolitan Administration will inspect the fire scene to indicate whether the hotel has any illegal violations, according to the city building codes. The construction must comply with the city regulations and the owner should be able to provide the relevant official certification and legal documents issued by the city authority.  Any wrongdoings will be subject to city prosecution and legal action.

3. Civil charges : The hotel will be responsible for any financial claims, entitled by the victims and their relatives, both deaths and injury. Despites the random nature, either by accidents or electrical short-circuits, the victims or relatives of the deaths can contact the hotel for compensation. In any irreconcilable cases, the victims can sue the hotel in the civil court for financial claims.

We should learn some lessons from these two unfortunate events. These two buildings, situated in the heart of Bangkok, are high-rise, popular icons to Bangkokians. Fortunately, both incidents happened on the weekend where a lot of people stayed home. Otherwise, the number of victims would have been untold, both death and injury. These two fire cases inflicted massive losses to property, people and society as a whole. The building owners will face long and pricey lawsuits ahead of them. At the end of the day, these two buildings will be named and referred to as unsafe and fired buildings both domestically and internationally.

I am here to confirm cases after cases. When it comes to the fire safety budget, please don’t fall short of cash. The fire safety expense is a budget well-spent. Any saving from the downgrading of the equipment or safety factors will catch up with you sooner or later. There are a lot of examples, at least two cases in this article. Lessons well learned will bear fruits. Don’t compromise fire safety with meager saving in any future construction. So you will not be the victim yourself in any situation.

Thank you :

- The Engineering Institute of Thailand (EIT) under H.M. the King's Patronage
Suttipun Wanwinwet 
B.F.M. Co., Ltd.