(CNN) The deadliest fire to hit the Chinese capital in two decades killed 29 people in hospital on Tuesday, but most people didn’t hear about it until hours later, and even then details were scarce as authorities kept details under wraps.
As flames tore through Changfeng Hospital in Fengtai District from around 1pm on Tuesday, forcing some to desperately climb out of windows and huddle on top of air conditioners, state media remained silent and censored it seemed to rub off internet of any mentions.
The degree of information control and censorship has come in a shock to netizens as well as Beijing residents, many of whom complained online that they had no idea a deadly fire had broken out in their city until late Tuesday night.
On Wednesday, Beijing authorities offered more details about the fire during a news conference that was delayed by half an hour and lasted less than 20 minutes.
The fire that engulfed an inpatient building of Changfeng Hospital was caused by sparks from interior renovation work that ignited flammable paint, Zhao Yang, an official with the Beijing Fire Department, said on Wednesday.
On suspicion of gross negligence, 12 people were detained, including hospital director and construction workers, said Sun Haitao, an official from the Beijing Public Security Bureau.
In videos shared on social media on Tuesday — before they were censored – smoke could be seen billowing from the windows of several hospitals as people desperately tried to escape the fire. At least one person appears to be using a rope made from sheets to descend from a lower-level terrace window.
Others were seen either huddling on air conditioning units located on the outside of the building or trying to use the units to maneuver from one level to the next. One person was seen jumping from one level of the building to the lower terrace.
The fire is Beijing’s deadliest in recent years, surpassing the toll of a 2017 fire that killed 19 people in a cramped two-story building in the Daxing district in the capital’s southern suburbs.
It is also one of the most heavily censored incidents in recent years – and a sign of the tightening of media controls in China under leader Xi Jinping, the country’s most authoritarian leader in a generation.
The fire broke out in a busy neighborhood in western Beijing around noon on Tuesday, but Chinese media reported it only about eight hours after firefighters responded to calls for help.
At 8.43pm, a brief report of the incident was published by the Beijing Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese capital – more than 7 hours after the fire was extinguished and more than 5 hours after rescue operations were completed.
On Chinese social media, many questioned why the public had been kept in the dark for so long.
“The incident happened after 12 pm and no media reported the breaking news at that time,” said a top comment on Weibo, noting that most state media only publish standardized press releases after 9 pm.
“The media have now become copiers for standardized press releases,” he adds.
Social media platforms in China, which have been quick to spread word of such incidents in the past, have also been largely silent for the fire all afternoon.
Information control is extreme, especially given the popularity of short video platforms and live streaming sites in China.
“It is often said that in the era where everyone has a microphone, it is difficult to prevent news from spreading, but now it seems that it is not so difficult after all,” said a commenter on Wechat.
“Even though 21 people have died, until (the authorities) announce it, it will be as if nothing happened in society,” the commentator said on Tuesday, before the death toll rose to 29.
At a brief news conference Wednesday, officials released details about the dead. Among them are 26 hospitalized patients with an average age of 71 years. The oldest victim is 88 years old. A nurse, caregiver and family also died in the fire, according to Li Zongrong, deputy head of the Fengtai District Administration.
A total of 142 people were evacuated, including 71 patients. As of Wednesday, 39 injured people remained in hospital, with three in critical condition, said Li Ang, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Health Commission.
Family members of patients at Changfeng Hospital said that even as the tragedy unfolded, they did not notice.
On Tuesday evening, some rushed to the hospital to look for their loved ones after learning about it on the news, according to China Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper.
“It’s been seven or eight hours and I haven’t received a single phone call,” the relative was quoted as saying.
But the hospital refused to give them a list of the victims’ names and instead asked them to register their information and wait for official notification, the report said.
Following state media reports of the incident, discussions on social media remained tightly controlled. Footage and photos of the fire were censored in real time as well were publications critical of the government’s handling of the fire and subsequent censorship.
Many questioned why the incident did not become a trending topic on Weibo on Tuesday and Wednesday morning.
Some have compared the fire’s limited visibility on social media to the massive coverage of a fatal explosion at a metals plant in Ohio in the US in February, which dominated Weibo trends for days.
While some Chinese media outlets have since published in-depth reports on the aftermath of the fire, the initial, prolonged silence has dismayed some liberal Chinese journalists.
On Wechat, a Beijing newspaper editor lamented the tightening grip of censorship and control over society.
“The most terrible thing is not the death of 29 people, but eight hours of silence,” the editor wrote in a post.
“The former is an accident and dereliction of duty, while the latter is a deliberate act with full effort to unscrupulously demonstrate its capacity for social control, to treat us as deaf, blind, stupid and worthless subjects. Incidents can be prevented, but deliberate action can become the norm.”