'Help us! We don't want to die!'
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'Help us! We don't want to die!'

Blaze survivors recall hellish moments at tower block, hail safety training

Among the three people killed when a blaze broke out at Ratchathewi Apartment early Tuesday morning was an 18-year-old student who attended the prestigious Triamudom Suksa School and dreamed of being a doctor. He died of smoke inhalation.

While the teenager tragically succumbed to the inferno, other survivors told the Bangkok Post the reason they were still breathing was due to the fire-safety training they had received beforehand, either at school or elsewhere.

They suggested this training was crucial to ensure the survival of people who live in crowded apartment blocks in big cities where fires can break out at any time.

Nattawut Kongsawat, a resident who was hospitalised after this week's incident, said he was overwhelmed by how cooperative everyone was at the time, and the selflessness of strangers.

He also said safety skills and knowledge about how to evacuate in an emergency which he had learned during his university years ended up saving his life that day.

He said such lessons should be taught to everyone, especially more vulnerable members of society. Ideally, it would be integrated into school curricula, he added, along with lessons on how to administer first aid.

Charging reasonable rents and located in the heart of Bangkok, the 180-unit Ratchathewi Apartment was home to about 300 residents, mostly office workers and university students who work or study in or around the Siam Square area.

"What I remember most is the smoke. There was smoke everywhere," said Thananchai Chooautsaha, a pharmacist who lived on the sixth floor. The fire broke out on the fifth floor.

Mr Thananchai said he was playing computer games in his room when he heard someone shout "fire". Assuming it was just another prank, he ignored it -- until chaos erupted.

Within minutes the corridors outside his room had turned into a perverse chorus of screams and door-banging, he said.

"When I opened the door, there was thick smoke everywhere," he said. "I had to run for my life."

He stumbled along a corridor and down the main staircase. As he couldn't hear any sirens or see any fire alarm buttons, he started to panic as he wondered how he could alert his neighbours.

"There were no alarms, only a glass box with a fire extinguisher inside," he said.

After making his way outside, he joined others who had gathered in front of the building and shouted "fire!" repeatedly. Shortly afterwards, a back door sprung open and people started streaming out, he added.

The apartment building is seen after the Tuesday morning fire was extinguished. Survivors said they managed to escape by relying on fire safety training they had received earlier. (Photo courtesy Erawan Emergency Medical Centre)

Amid the chaos, some of the residents raced up to the roof -- only to find the door to the deck was locked.

They managed to break it open and waited to be rescued.

Other chose to huddle together in one room and use wet towels to seal the door frame in a bid to keep the smoke at bay.

"I saw a group of people screaming at the top of their lungs. 'Help us! We don't want to die!' they shouted. It was devastating," Mr Thananchai said.

He said he still feels traumatised but is glad to have made it out alive.

However, he has no plan to return to the apartment and is already looking for another place to live.

The building has been cordoned off temporarily while its structural integrity is being checked, authorities said.

The residents have been relocated to four temporary accommodations in Bangkok and Nonthaburi province, provided by the apartment owner.

The government has also set up a temporary relief centre at the Defence Energy Department, a block away from the building.

Mr Thananchai was told by the owner that he would back the equivalent of four months' rent, including his deposit, which was worth three-quarters of that.

He hasn't heard talk of any compensation.

"At least they could help assist the residents in relocating their stuff." he said.

It took over three hours to put the fire out due to difficulty firefighters had in accessing the area.

Although the apartment is located close to a main road, it was situated on a narrow soi packed with residents' vehicles, which blocked firefighters and rescue teams as they tried to make their way inside, authorities said.

The apartment was built in 1987 under the previous Building Control Act, Pol Gen Aswin Kwanmuang, the governor of Bangkok, said later on Tuesday.

The act stipulated that construction required the approval of the district office.

The act that replaced it five years later imposed a different set of regulations.

Among the 10,551 structures subject to the first act, 8,035 have undergone the required assessment, the governor said.

Legal action is now being pursued against the remaining 2,516, he added.

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