A Chinese court found an American businessman guilty of criminal negligence today in causing a hotel fire that killed 10 persons. He was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.
Richard S. Ondrik, 34, of Kokomo, Ind., also was ordered by a district court in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin to pay approximately $52,000 for damages caused to Harbin's Swan Hotel on the night of April 18.
Chief Judge Pei Xing told the official New China News Agency that the court had given Ondrik a "light sentence" and had fixed "a rational sum" for him to pay in compensation. Ondrik faced a maximum seven-year sentence on a charge of negligently starting the fire by smoking in bed.
Ondrik's American attorney, Robert C. Goodwin Jr., said he is "very disappointed" with the sentence and hopes that once compensation is paid, a parole will be possible for Ondrik.
Several American businessmen interviewed here today also expressed disappointment and said they consider the sentence to be an excessively tough one.
One American, who is knowledgeable about the case, said Ondrik has made a preliminary decision to appeal the sentence.
The Ondrik case has provided an unusual look at China's judicial system at a time when it is apparently being strengthened. It has also brought to light differences between its system and those of the West.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige voiced concern to Chinese officials about the case during a visit here in mid-May, according to U.S. officials. Ondrik had been kept in Harbin for several weeks at that time without being charged formally. Goodwin was not allowed to appear in court on Ondrik's behalf; Goodwin and the Chinese lawyer who was appointed to represent Ondrik had only five days to read the evidence and prepare the case.
Perhaps the most delicate question raised by the case has been that of five North Koreans who were killed in the fire. Some of Ondrik's supporters are convinced that the Chinese would not have pursued the case as vigorously had it not been for Peking's close relationship with North Korea.
Ondrik is apparently only the second American citizen to have been imprisoned here since the United States and China established diplomatic relations more than six years ago.
The case also has dramatized the inadequacies of fire protection measures and equipment in Chinese hotels and, some observers say, has contributed to a new emphasis on safety. The official China Daily newspaper reported recently that the Chinese Public Security Ministry has issued orders that all hotels, factories and major public buildings that pose fire hazards must adopt proper fire control measures or shut down.
In his final statement to the court on July 23, the last day of the trial, Ondrik said he had taken 10 years to prepare for his career in China and had advised and introduced many energy companies to China. Ondrik, who is with a Hong Kong firm called Energy Projects Southeast Asia Ltd, said he wants to continue working in China.
"My major task has been to help bring advanced equipment and technology to assist in China's modernization effort, and I do not want all these efforts to also be a victim of the Swan Hotel fire," he said.
Ondrik arrived in Harbin April 18 to discuss the sale of a compressor to the Harbin oil refinery. After talks, he and his colleagues drank toasts that evening with their Chinese hosts. Ondrik drank, according to his own admission, eight small glasses of Chinese mao tai, four glasses of wine and several glasses of beer at the dinner but said he was not intoxicated.
Chinese investigators said that, after retiring to his hotel room, Ondrik had dropped a lighted cigarette on his hotel bed, which smoldered until the businessman awoke and opened his door to escape. The investigators said the air convection caused by opening the door allowed the fire to spread through 21 rooms on the 11th floor of the hotel.
Ondrik has testified that he could not remember what happened before he awoke. He said he was not in the habit of smoking in bed.
Also killed were Ondrik's business partner, Alan Eng, and four Chinese hotel staff.
The court denied a request by the defense that an internationally recognized fire expert be allowed to view the scene of the fire and issue a report.
Goodwin has raised questions about the safety of the Swan Hotel, pointing out that at the time of the fire, it had no fire extinguishers in the hallways, no exit lights, no emergency exits, no fire-rated doors, no sprinkler system, no functioning fire alarm and a single open stairway. The hotel had bought fire alarms and smoke detectors but failed to install them.
Prosecutors agreed that the hotel was partly to blame and recommended leniency in Ondrik's case.
The hotel deputy security chief was sentenced Monday to two years imprisonment with three years probation, according to the Chinese news agency. The floor attendant, who apparently helped put out the fire, was given a lighter sentence of three months. Both were missing from their posts when the blaze began.
"In any other country, the owner, builder and designer of the hotel and the fire department would suffer the severest penalties for a tragedy like this," said a representative of an American business firm.