Beijing Fireworks Display Sets Off Deadly Inferno

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One of the most visually stunning landmarks on Beijing's skyline is the new headquarters of state broadcaster China Central Television. CCTV had organized a fireworks display to celebrate the new complex, but it went terribly wrong. The fireworks set off a fire on a side tower and it became a raging inferno. One firefighter was killed. CCTV acknowledged it never obtained the special permit needed for the fireworks.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the most visually stunning new landmarks on Beijing's skyline is now a twisted, burned-out shell, and it was a series of miscalculations that led to the inferno that destroyed one of the huge towers at the state-owned China Central Television. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN: Construction managers at the new CCTV Headquarters sent employees a cell phone text message. It invited them to mark the end of the spring festival with dumplings and a fireworks display.

(Soundbite of fireworks)

KUHN: Just before 8:30, eyewitnesses saw fireworks land on a side tower adjacent to the futuristic-looking main structure. Before long, the side tower was engulfed in flames, which raged for five hours as fire department ladders reached only part of the way up the 520 foot high building. The building was designed to contain concert halls, a broadcast center and a luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel. Construction was almost complete, but the complex had not yet passed fire safety inspection.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Woman (News Anchor): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Tuesday's CCTV evening news reported that one firefighter was killed in the blaze and six others injured. It also mentioned the fire department's findings that fireworks triggered the blaze. It did not report, though, that CCTV didn't get the required city government permission to put on the Olympic-sized fireworks display or that they ignored police warnings to stop it. CCTV later apologized for the incident on its 24-hour news channel.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: CCTV is greatly pained that the fire seriously damaged state property, said the announcer. We sincerely apologize for the traffic jams and inconveniences it caused to nearby residents.

Back in 2005, I interviewed the project's lead architect, Ole Scheeren, on the construction site. He described the main structure as a loop folded in space. Some Beijing residents say the building's twin towers look more like a pair of giant boxer shorts. Scheeren said the idea was to create an alternative to the traditional skyscraper and to express structural and corporate continuity.

Mr. OLE SCHEEREN (Architect): The idea is that inside this building you could say the brains know what the hands are doing and vice versa, to reunite all aspects of the company into a single building, into a single structure.

KUHN: The hands of the operation, the manager of the headquarters' construction, are reportedly now in police custody.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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