‘Don’t cry, Shanghai’: Thousands mourn at site of high-rise fire

Crowds pour in towards the scene of last week's fire

Thousands of mourners gathered today at the site of last week’s deadly fire in Shanghai, which claimed 58 lives and injured more than 70.

The 28-storey apartment block in Shanghai’s Jing’an district was undergoing renovations when welding sparks caused the scaffolding to catch fire on Monday afternoon. Flames quickly engulfed the building, and rescue teams said much of the construction material was also highly flammable, hindering efforts to contain the blaze.

Four unlicensed welders who, according to Shanghai police, were illegally welding on the 10th floor of the high-rise, have been detained, with public security minister Meng Jianzhu calling for a full inquiry into the reasons for the tragedy. Illegal sub-contracting and poor government supervision have already been blamed.

I went along to the scene this afternoon. As I exited Changping Lu metro station, not known for being one of Shanghai’s busier stops, the atmosphere was almost one of excitement: something was happening. I was met by a crowd of hundreds laying flowers and writing on posters to commemorate those who had perished seven days ago.

I followed the endless crowd and hit Jiaozhou Lu, the street the high-rise is located on. Police calmly managed the mourners, who could only enter the cordoned-off street with the commemorative items, such as flowers and golden ribbons, that were being handed out. Scattered throughout the sea of people were yellow and lavender chrysanthemums, and monochrome bilingual posters that read, ‘Don’t Cry Shanghai’.

Mourners outside Changping Lu metro station

One of the many bilingual posters found at the scene

The crowd visibly thickened as it continued down the street and approached the building. People stopped in their thousands to pay respects and photograph the blackened remains of the apartment block. A charred, haunting smell penetrated throughout the damp autumn air.

Today's crowd approaching Jiaozhou Lu

The 28-storey apartment block post-fire

At the crossroads with Yuyao Lu the police presence was larger, with authorities cordoning off one side of the street for a lengthy crowd to lead what seemed like a procession. There was no queue jumping (…yet), everyone did as they were told: they continued walking down the street and joined the line at its eventual end.

I carried on following the crowd, which swelled up as the afternoon progressed. By around 3.30pm, more policemen arrived to manage mourners. Authorities seemed on-edge: a uniform look of fear marked their faces as they anticipated unrest or disorder. But, bar the odd person jumping the queue, nothing untoward happened.

More mourners flowing in

I spoke to a few people at the site, and the sentiment – albeit gained from a purely random sample – was unanimous: this was an event to commemorate the dead. A 24-year-old photographer told me it was peaceful, there was no danger; it was simply a Sunday afternoon remembering those who had perished. This was certainly the vibe that rippled throughout the dense crowd.

A local journalist I spoke to added that everyone was united here, regardless of age, gender or class. But as I meandered through the sea of people, 90% of whom were speaking Shanghainese, it became very clear that this was a local tragedy and a local memorial. I, as one of the very few Westerners around, felt as though I was intruding.

As I made my way back towards the metro station, the river of mourners showed few signs of easing, as more and more arrived to pay their respects.

I bumped into some friends who were headed to the site. One of them later said that, in almost a decade in Shanghai, he had never witnessed an event of this kind.

The charred apartment block lingers in a sea of Shanghai high-rises