May 4, 2001. I was on my way home from the post office when I witnessed a serious fire.
Thick black smoke billowed into the air and along the street.
As I approached the scene, fire crews pumped water into the blazing 5th floor flat. Flames climbed floor to ceiling and licked out the windows. Two other fire response teams pulled in behind me, along with police units and two ambulances. Three pumpers, a cherry picker, a rescue truck and at least 35 firefighters, clad in their black fire gear and bright yellow helmets, worked to control the flames.
The firefighters scrambled. Hoses were unrolled, coupled and charged. While his brothers attacked the blaze from below, another fireman trained his hose on the flames from above with the cherry picker. Three main jets of water were aimed into the flat, while others covered the rooftop and surrounding units.
Huge volumes of water gushed from the building into the street below. Other firefighters ran into the building with their hoses, concerned the blaze would spread to the surrounding flats. Typical of Hong Kong, older buildings feature residential flats atop numerous ground floor businesses, all crammed together. This building sat next to a highrise office tower.
In crowded cities, fewer things are more terrifying than uncontrolled fire.
The presence of the ambulances was ominous. They arrived without lights and sirens: not a good sign. Three of the crew, dressed in their white uniforms and red helmets, waited nearby with a stretcher. They looked like vultures. I hoped no one had died.
Spectators crowded the sidewalks as police cordoned the area. Television news cameramen and newspaper photographers ran back and forth, trying to film the action from all possible angles. While all this happened, other pedestrians walked by, oblivious.
Soon the firefighters brought the fire under control, and then extinguished the blaze. Crews inside the building continued hosing down the interior to ensure the fire would not restart or flare back up. Water and foam gushed out the main entrance of the building.
Along the street I watched the crowd. Most were there to see the drama unfold. Some waited to return to their homes, or to their jobs in the shops at street level that had been evacuated and closed. A group of seven women dressed in identical pink uniforms waited on the corner. They worked in the cosmetics store below the flat that had burned.
Soon afterward, firefighters spilled out of the building, carrying hoses and equipment. They began packing up. The cherry picker was lowered, secured and driven back to the station. The flat was gutted; the face of the building blackened.
A man came out of a restaurant two shops down from the cosmetics shop. He approached me and asked how much I'd seen. We discussed what had taken place. I was relieved when he informed me no one had died. One person had been injured. He excused himself to attend a small commotion between a few men off to our left.
He returned and told me one of the men lived in the flat below the one that had burned. He'd forgotten to close his windows; his flat was full of water. I wondered how many of the other flats were water damaged. He mentioned people working in the shops below had no idea of the extent of the fire when the first fire truck arrived on the scene. Everyone assumed it was no big deal.
As I left, I reflected on the speed and efficiency of the Hong Kong Fire Services and firefighters in general. These people put their lives on the line every day. I was impressed by what I saw. I congratulate them for the excellent job they did. They prevented the fire from becoming a full-on conflagration. They prevented further loss and eliminated the danger of lost lives.
In my book, they're heroes.