World News

China Hotel Fire Kills 19 on Eve of International Marathon

Posted August 25, 2018 3:16 p.m. EDT

BEIJING — A predawn hotel fire killed at least 19 people on Saturday in a northeastern Chinese city just a day before an international marathon that attracts tens of thousands of visitors.

The blaze at the Beilong Hot Spring Hotel in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, burned for more than three hours before it was extinguished at 7:50 a.m., the city government announced on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. In addition to the 19 victims, another 23 people were injured and sent to hospital for treatment, it said.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

There was no immediate word on whether the victims included any of the competitors in the race, the Harbin International Marathon, which draws up to 30,000 competitors and a similar number of fans from around the world.

The police in Harbin announced late Saturday afternoon that the marathon would go ahead as scheduled on Sunday morning.

The hotel is just a mile from the marathon’s finish line, on Sun Island near the north bank of the Songhua River, several hundred yards across the river’s main channel from the heart of downtown Harbin. Much of the island is a landscaped park with winding pedestrian paths.

The marathon’s course begins in the center of Harbin and follows a circuitous route that ends on Sun Island, which is 4 miles long and has about a dozen small hotels.

China’s last major hotel fire, in February of last year, also took place on a Saturday morning. Ten people died in that fire, at the HNA Platinum Mix Hotel in Nanchang, a provincial capital in southeastern China.

Chinese hotels often have several floors of karaoke bars and other entertainment facilities that are packed with revelers on Friday night and into Saturday morning.

Cities across China have been tightening rules on smoking in hotels over the last several years. But enforcement remains uneven, and some smoking still occurs in hotel restaurants and other public areas.

Western chains like Marriott, Hyatt and IHG have rapidly expanded in China, and they apply international standards for fire escapes and other precautions. Standards at domestic hotel brands in China are more uneven, but have been gradually improving.

Harbin was a small fishing village until the late 1890s, when Russia made it the hub for construction of a railroad connecting the Trans-Siberian Railroad near Lake Baikal in Siberia and the Russian port of Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. One of the challenges in the construction lay in building a bridge across the Songhua River, which freezes during the city’s bitterly cold winters and turns into a torrent of melted snow and ice floes in the spring.

The Russian railway bridge, which crosses the northeastern tip of Sun Island, still stands but is now a pedestrian bridge for sightseers. A modern highway bridge connects Sun Island to downtown Harbin, while a new railway bridge crosses the river farther to the northeast.