The fire prevention system was working well, “bad luck” caused the tragedy of the karaoke room: owner

Three days after tragedy struck on September 6, killing 32 people in the living room of the southern province of Binh Duong, Hoa spoke to VnExpress right next to the scene of the fire, but declined to be photographed.

This is an excerpt from the interview.

Q: As a party involved in the fire, what thoughts have been going through your mind over the past few days?

A: My colleagues working here have called customers to come out before, but they didn’t and it resulted in fatalities. I think the dead stay dead so they won’t be blamed, but the consequences are too heavy.

I run the karaoke business sustainably. Those running the business unsustainably wouldn’t have built such a big living room. If you build it small, you will recoup the initial investment in 6-7 years. If you’re building big, you never know when you’ll be able to recoup that initial investment.

I opened up the living room so that there was a place where people could entertain guests. For example, don’t men, real estate agents have sessions when they have to meet clients? Will they sign contracts without inviting people out to sing? Our criteria for opening the show were elegance, cleanliness, safety, where everyone wants to come.

It’s normal for people doing business to call a woman to serve their beers. They want to prove they’re stylish, rich, and able to hire someone else to pour them beer. If you can’t, you pour your own beers. There’s a difference between a man who can hire someone to serve his beers and a man who can’t. People often say things about karaoke rooms, but everyone has their own opinions, and I can’t blame them.

Initial police investigations suggest the fire was caused by a short circuit. Why didn’t the circuit breaker interrupt the circuit when there was a fire on the second floor, instead allowing patrons on the third floor to continue singing?

A: I don’t know. The police did not conduct a full investigation. I hope there will be (clear) results. But what makes you so sure that the customers who stayed sang? Also, the living room circuit breaker system is installed for each floor, so if the fire was on the second floor, the electricity would still be on on the third floor.

Previously, whenever there was a problem, the circuit breaker in the living room would automatically cut the circuit. In this case, when the third floor circuit breaker was not tripped, it meant that the fire had not yet spread to the third floor. However, I don’t know where the fire was. But according to witnesses, when they called everyone out, there was still electricity on the third floor.

I overheard the manager and staff say they had already told the customers to come out but they didn’t and just sat there. There was an employee who walked into room 305 and asked a guest to come out, but they didn’t listen. They even said “It’s airy here and it’s too suffocating outside. It’s not okay.”

The employee ran downstairs and survived. Those who ran down lived, those who came up the roof terrace lived; only those who remained inside the chambers died.

There are still too many issues that have not been clarified, including questions about the living room’s fire prevention system. How about that?

That day one of my brothers said the living room was on fire. At that time I thought it was just a small fire. We do all our fire prevention work properly, what are we afraid of?

The show has been in business since 2015-2016 and we are organized on fire prevention. At that time there was a fire in Hanoi (another karaoke parlor fire that killed 13 people) so I got scared and did things with the stairs and the fire systems. I made them of my own volition; if anything happens it will affect me, so i always think of ways to do things that benefit all parties.

I have fitted each floor with a long water hose, four cm in diameter, which can be slid inside each room for daily cleaning. Guests often urinate in the toilets inside and the rooms stink.

The pipes are installed with the water distribution system, so if there is a fire on one floor, just turn on the water and point the pipe. But that night, our employees couldn’t go up and remove the pipes. The smoke kept coming in and when someone ran upstairs it was already full of fumes. This must have been due to burning decorations and sound proof materials. If you want the living room to be soundproof, without leaking noise, the walls should be thick.

So you’re confident about the salon’s fire prevention system?

Yes. I did everything, but when an accident happens, it’s bad luck and against our will. If the fire has already grown too big before anyone notices, how can people run? How can employees access garden hoses?

People have asked me why I didn’t do fire escapes outside. But when I built this living room, I already made two staircases and two fire escapes on the ground floor. It’s very spacious. If I had built more outside, I would have had three steps and more land. How would I build it then?

The living room has many windows blocked with bricks, making it difficult to evacuate, rescue, and ventilate. Why?

We had made the windows to allow more ventilation, but later we were afraid that customers would get drunk and jump out or do something wrong, so we covered them.

A karaoke room must be beautiful. It would be weird to install metal bars and the windows can be ugly too. Nobody does that. We only make windows where there is a toilet because it can smell bad.

Since the day of the accident, have you and your husband met the relatives of the victims and learned more about them?

We are cooperating with the investigation now, so we can only send relatives to offer our condolences. So far, we have supported each deceased victim with 30 million VND ($1,273) and each injured victim with 5 million VND. The hospitalization costs of our employees will be borne by me. After the investigation is completed, my husband, the salon management and I will go to each family to offer our condolences and provide more financial support to loved ones such as their children, parents and other loved ones.

The people (staff) who died worked with me for 5-6 years, of course it’s painful. I was sad to learn that there were people who had already gone down, but then came back up to get a dog and died. There was also a girl who rode with her friend and also died.

What do you think is your responsibility in all of this?

To talk about responsibilities, I really don’t dare take it all on myself. But now that I’ve calmed down, I realize that if people had listened and got out of the rooms, they wouldn’t have died, and I alone would have suffered property damage. The fire didn’t spread to anyone else’s house.

My employees, even though they didn’t know whether they were going to live or die, still called people out. That was (showing) enough responsibility. But they didn’t listen, so should we just kick them out? During a fire, we don’t have time to drag people out on our own. The fact that an employee can do the same is already enough for the employer.

I want people to see it that way. A salon that did its job of preventing fires well and still got burned is bad luck that no one wants.

Now that lives have been lost, my loved ones could face legal repercussions. My husband is the owner, who let Khai, a family member, run things. So who has the most to lose here?

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