Vietnam’s Binh Duong fire: Death toll rises to 33 in An Phu bar incident

THUAN AN, Vietnam — A fire at a karaoke bar in Vietnam has killed at least 33 people, becoming the deadliest blaze in the Southeast Asian country in more than 20 years and sparking a national debate over standards fire safety and code enforcement.

People were seen jumping from the balcony of the three-storey building on Tuesday evening as plumes of smoke rose into the sky, giving off the smell of burning plastic. At least 13 people died of suffocation, officials said.

Bich Ngoc, 30, worked as a receptionist at the karaoke bar. She was downstairs when she heard screams of fire and rushed to try to put it out, but was forced back by the smoke, she said. She suffered a slight burn on her arm.

“I feel lucky,” she said wearily from An Phu hospital, where the majority of the injured were taken after the fire. “I survived.”

She added that the soundproofing of karaoke rooms and loud singing also prevented some customers from hearing employee warnings. When they heard the screams, some people thought it was a joke.

“We tried to save as many people as possible,” she said. “We have not abandoned them.

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The incident was the latest in a series of fires that have broken out in bars in Vietnam over the past few years and prompted Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh to order safety inspections for all venues deemed “high risk”, including bars, pubs and nightclubs. Police initially said 23 people died, but raised the death toll to 33 on Wednesday.

It was an electrical short circuit that started the fire at An Phu karaoke, officials said. The bar was located in a working-class industrial district of Thuan An, a town about an hour from the commercial center of Ho Chi Minh. According to locals, factory workers, food vendors and laborers living in low-rise and crowded buildings in the surrounding district often visited An Phu. Many employees were migrants from more rural districts.

The fire started on the second floor before quickly spreading to the third floor, clinging to foam mattresses that were used to soundproof karaoke rooms, police said. Thick smoke and flames blocked the exit routes for around 60 customers and employees. At least eight people were found dead in the bathroom, police said.

By Thursday afternoon, the police had cordoned off the block where the bar was located. Debris littered the street, which was empty of people.

Trinh Ngoc Quyen, police director of Binh Duong, where the bar is located, said officials suspect some guests were slow to respond to early warnings about the fire because they were intoxicated. “Some of the guests weren’t sober…so they closed the door to keep singing,” he said.

Due to the damage to the building, it took firefighters an entire day to fully inspect the site and identify the victims, local officials said. On Wednesday, police had checked the identity of 17 people who had died, the youngest of whom was 20.

The death toll from the fire is the highest in Vietnam since 2002 and has raised questions about fire safety standards and inspection protocol.

Karaoke is a popular form of entertainment in Asia, and fires in these crowded venues can quickly become deadly. Last month, three firefighters died on the job while responding to a blaze at a karaoke bar in the capital, Hanoi. After 13 people died in another karaoke bar fire in 2016, the government ordered a fire safety review of entertainment venues.

Tan brought from Singapore. Regine Cabato in Manila contributed to this report.

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