Every time he reads news about a house fire, Dang Van Thanh experiences the sorrow of losing his child again.
News about a woman and her three grandchildren killed in a house fire in Hanoi on May 13 hurt the 38-year-old Thanh once more, five years after his own baby perished due to smoke inhalation from a fire at his house.
“Only those who experienced losses from house fires understand my feelings,” he said.
It was the middle of the night in August 2018 when Thanh and his wife woke up to smoke billowing from the kitchen. There was a river behind their house, and all they had to do to escape the fire was exit through their back door. However, amid the chaos, no one in the family remembered where they put the key to the home’s back gate.
Meanwhile, the front of the house was encased in fire.
Holding his young son, Thanh escaped through the flames at the front door and shouted for the neighbors to help with the rescue before coming back inside the house to help his wife.
“My legs were burned but I kept walking. Once I got out, I blacked out,” Thanh recalled.
The parents and their son were then brought to the National Institute of Burns in Hanoi. Thanh’s son eventually passed away after a month of treatment.
Thanh’s wife, Hanh, had to undergo a two-year treatment before recovering.
However, her health has deteriorated since the fire and she still needs routine check-ups. She is not able to work anymore and stays at home with her two children now. Thanh now bears the full weight of the family’s financial burden.Lucky survivors
Sixty-five-year-old Tran Trong Duc’s house burned down in early-2018.
When Duc got home from work in the afternoon, he saw his house’s first and second floors engulfed in flames. There were four people inside at that moment, including three of Duc’s grandchildren and his daughter-in-law. Everyone expected the worst-case scenario.
Duc’s house was located at the end of a small alley, which was around 200 meters from the main road. Fire trucks would have been unable to reach his house, but fortunately local firefighters had recently devised a fire motorcycle that helped them approach Duc’s house in time. Duc’s neighbors then helped firefighters climb to the roof and break into Duc’s house, rescuing the four people trapped inside.
The roof of Duc’s house was protected by what Hanoians call “bird cages” – steel wire or metal cages designed to prevent intruders.
“Had the house cage not been broken, my family would be incomplete now,” he said.
Fortunately, prior to the incident, neighborhood authorities had recently held firefighting training sessions for local residents and Duc’s daughter-in-law had attended. During the fire, she took Duc’s three grandchildren to the top floor and by doing so, didn’t breathe in any toxic fumes.
Duc’s family lost all of their property in the fire and had to stay at their relative’s house for a few months. It took them four years after the fire to save enough money to buy a new home.
“Fortunately, my daughter-in-law and grandchildren survived. Otherwise, I would have felt guilty every day,” Duc said.
According to the Ministry of Public Security, over 17,000 house fires took 433 lives in Vietnam between 2017 and 2022. Some 60% of the fires happened in urban areas. Electrical malfunctions were the number one source of the fires, causing 45% of the blazes.
Already this year, 522 fire accidents – an average of four fires a day – have killed and injured a total of 46 people in Vietnam.
In a report published in September 2022, major general Nguyen Van Long, Deputy Minister of Public Security, said there were several problems behind the constant fires in Vietnam.
The report cited the lack of anti-fire devices provided and installed around the country by the Ministry of Industry and Trade, a dearth in firefighting training programs launched by the Ministry of Education and Training, and the fact that 11 provinces and cities were home to major projects and construction sites that were caught violating fire safety regulations. The report also stated that firefighting infrastructure and equipment was limited and inadequate as well.What to do
The Ministry of Public Security has published a checklist of the four things people should do if they find themselves in a house fire.
Firstly, people should find the source of fire and smoke. Secondly, identify exits or safe shelters. Thirdly, minimize your exposure to the fire and resulting toxic chemicals.
And finally, families whose houses are equipped with cages around roofs, balconies porches, stoops or doors should prepare hammers, axes and pliers that could help them to break out.
Duc said his house fire was caused by an electrical short circuit. Since then, he has reminded other members in his family to turn off the lights before leaving the rooms, remove unused power plugs, and shut off the gas valve after cooking. He also now checks every night to see if there are any unused electrical appliances left turned on before going to bed.
During the construction of his new house, Duc’s family debated whether or not they wanted cages around their house for security, or whether to build it without cages for fire safety.
“We eventually decided to build our new house without cages,” he said.
However, he also admitted that although he knew his family should have fire extinguishers on every floor of the home, he had unfortunately “not been able to afford that yet.”
Thanh said his house that burned house was a tube house rented to him by a relative.
He had opened a hardware store in the front area of the house, and the back area was the family’s living quarters. There was both a front door and a back door but when they needed to escape the fire they couldn’t remember where the key to the back door was because they never opened it – both the back door and back cages were kept permanently closed and locked to prevent thieves from sneaking in.
The house’s electrical system was self-installed by Thanh and some amateur engineers he hired. On the night that changed his life forever, his house experienced a short circuit in the kitchen that sparked a fire. Once the fridge and gas tank caught, the fire quickly spread to the whole house.
Last year, Thanh bought the land he had been renting. He built a new tube house that was this time equipped with exits in each room. Although he still fears thieves, he discarded the idea of caging his house in. Electrical wires were built into the home’s walls professionally, and his family committed to turning off all appliances at night.
Thanh now encourages all homeowners to make sure they have multiple fire exits. He also pleads with them to remember where their keys are.
“Don’t put yourself in lifelong regret and pain, like I did,” he said.