It was midnight.
I was sitting in my bedroom, scrolling the Internet when the fire broke out.
No, not in my room, but somewhere far away. 690 km, to be exact, a distance far enough to keep you safe from the fire itself and the chaos of the whole neighborhood, but not far enough to shield you from all the pain and frustration of seeing others suffer.
The Fateful Night
"So hot, so hot" - the line from a TikTok video capturing the disaster of that fateful night has been etched in my mind for the past week, as if I were the one consumed by the fire.
Since then, I could still manage to continue with life as I should, but I found it hard to put myself to sleep. I was half-scared that the fire in Khuong Ha would, in some unimaginable way, find its way to the second floor of my house, into my bedroom, and burn me to sleep forever. I was also half-traumatized by the thought that kids around my age had spent their last minutes screaming in desperation for their lives and those of their loved ones. What's worse is that their souls might be wandering on this Earth without a place to go. Their houses, their homes, were reduced to ashes.
It always brought tears to my eyes when people had to cut their lives short in such a painful manner. But these days, events like these seem to happen on a daily basis. From the earthquakes in Morocco, the floods in Libya, to the wildfires in Canada, lives are taken away not by hundreds, but by thousands and millions at a time. No scientific scale can precisely measure the level of casualties, damage, and trauma they leave in their wake.
Will There Be a Second Khuong Ha?
It greatly troubled me to know the ominous possibility of people dying in another blaze in the future. Although emphasis has been placed on updating fire safety regulations and people increasingly feel the need to protect themselves, Hanoi was blatantly built in a way that makes it susceptible to fires. According to The Guardian, the capital's population density is 22,000 people per square kilometer, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the world. This means a lot of people are trapped in a very small space, often in those infamous "tube"-style houses that are built so close to each other that you could easily eavesdrop on your neighbors' gossip. These buildings are also notorious for having rolling garage doors at their entrances that shut down any hope of escaping if a fire cuts off the electricity supply.
Now, imagine if a fire breaks out. The residents would be left with two choices: either to jump out of the windows and risk breaking every bone in their bodies or to try to make it to the ground using a single, dilapidated stairwell along with dozens of other households and risk never getting out alive.
The fire in Khuong Ha, deemed by many as a wake-up call, was tragically not the first inferno to ravage our nation. Just last year, a karaoke bar in Binh Duong province was fatally engulfed in flames, killing at least 33 people. People also called it a wake-up call for authorities to double down on fire safety inspections in karaoke bars. The problem is, there should not be that many wake-up calls. Unlike how we like to set and turn off multiple alarm clocks before actually waking up in the morning, we cannot afford another fire disaster because the human cost is simply too unbearable.
As we can see, the face of Hanoi's infrastructure, especially in low-income areas, has remained largely unchanged over the years. Mini apartments have persisted for decades, hidden in elongated, narrow alleys, parts of which sunlight barely reaches. It was this lack of urban development and oversight that constantly placed local residents in a precarious position when it comes to disasters, as escape routes and safety measures were woefully inadequate.
With nothing changing, another fire, not necessarily in Khuong Ha, will break out again, extinguishing hundreds who should have lived and keeping thousands more in sleepless nights.
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