Flames Engulf Beijing Hotel
Fireworks Showered Unfinished Complex

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

BEIJING, Feb. 10 -- Old traditions may have clashed with the latest addition to Beijing's increasingly modern skyline, as the Rem Koolhaas-designed Mandarin Oriental hotel caught fire Monday night after being showered with a burst of fireworks.

The cause of the blaze was unclear, and one firefighter died early Tuesday after being hospitalized for smoke inhalation, the Web site of the People's Daily newspaper reported. Chinanews.com, the Web site for a state-run news agency, said seven firefighters had been hospitalized, including two who were considered out of danger. The Web site for Phoenix TV quoted Chinanews.com as saying 30 injured people had been saved, without elaborating.

Preliminary reports said the fire was caused by the illegal use of fireworks, and an investigation is underway, Chinanews.com said. Although Beijing officials allowed fireworks downtown this year, their use is prohibited in buildings or on roofs or balconies.

Beijing's urban architecture, which previously had not been widely celebrated, got a huge boost during last year's Olympic Games, which featured an iconic national stadium known as the Bird's Nest and an iridescent aquatic center known as the Water Cube. The Mandarin Oriental is immediately next to the new headquarters for state broadcaster CCTV, a modern and hulking pair of black glass towers joined at the top and bottom, also designed by Koolhaas.

The CCTV building was not yet occupied and did not appear to be damaged, according to news media reports. The 241-room hotel also had not yet opened. It was to be the Mandarin Oriental's flagship property in China, according to the official New China News Agency.

Fireworks have previously been outlawed in downtown Beijing, but in recent years they were allowed to be set off during the week celebrating the Lunar New Year. China's most important holiday began with ear-splitting bangs and whistling bursts of light on Jan. 25 and ended with Monday night's Lantern Festival under the largest and fullest moon in decades, according to experts at the Beijing Planetarium.

Beijing party secretary Liu Qi and the capital's mayor, Guo Jinlong, went to the scene of the fire, which began about 8:30 p.m., showering bystanders with ash and temporarily shutting down a subway line.

"The building was like an oven, red inside," said Hu Jing, 26, a paralegal who works in a building opposite the CCTV towers and noticed the fire just after it started. "In less than 20 minutes, the fire had engulfed half the building. Within half an hour, all of it was on fire. I thought, there goes billions of dollars, just burning."

Hu said firefighters didn't appear to direct their hoses at the flames until they had dropped to ground level. At that point, she said, the water flow looked too weak to be effective. "The steel outside was shining and red, like a pyramid. There were small explosions happening inside," Hu said. Hu estimated that 1,000 to 2,000 people gathered on the street to watch the flames.

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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