Nearly a month after Beijing’s uncompleted and not-yet-occupied Television Cultural Center (TVCC) highrise was ignited by fireworks, leaving it a charred shell, project members suggested new ideas about how the fire started and spread. Few are willing to speak on the record, but one developer unconnected to the project even proposed prohibiting fireworks in dense Beijing.

Fire, highrise, CCTV, Beijing
Photo: AP/Wide world
How the fireworks penetrated the building’s cladding remains unknown.

Adjacent to the iconic headquarters of China Central Television (CCTV), the new structure burned the night of Monday, Feb. 9, the last night of the Chinese New Year’s celebration. One firefighter died from smoke inhalation.

Most of the blame is directed at state-owned CCTV network. Beijing officials detained a total of 17 people, including the chief of construction, which CCTV admitted to hiring.They are part of the Hunan Province-based fireworks company that ignited several nearly 700 high explosive pyrotechnic devices for which it had not received the necessary municipal approval. Though the entire city was ablaze in fireworks to celebrate the last night of the 15-day Chinese New Year, the fireworks blamed for igniting the tower have been categorized as “A grade,” which require trained personnel granted with special permission from the city. “The company did not listen to the police, who advised against setting off A-grade fireworks,” said Luo Yuan, spokesman and deputy chief of Beijing Fire Control Bureau.

Many questions remain about the speed with which the fire spread through the 31-floor, steel-framed building, whose contractor is the Beijing Urban Construction Group Co., Ltd. The fire resulted in damages greater than 4 billion yuan (US $588 million), estimated China Free Press. As explained in Caijing, a Chinese financial magazine respected for its objectivity and independence, the TVCC tower is actually a composite of three structures: a main tower in the center that was to house a restaurant and 241 room, five-star hotel managed by the Mandarin Oriental and two wings on either side that branch off the tower in sweeping angular forms. These were designed to host a theater, television studio and an electronic data processing center.

How the fireworks penetrated the structure’s cladding isn’t clear. The tower’s northern and southern facades are metal and glass. On the east and south sides, metal strips form the cladding.

According to Caijing, firefighters suspect that two of the professional-grade fireworks struck the tower’s south side, burning through the thin metal facade and sparking the flammable insulation layer underneath, which then carried the fire over the entire building. Several architects who helped design the CCTV complex suggested a slightly different possibility. After visiting the site and surveying video and photos of the tower burning, they told Caijing that they “suspect the fireworks set flame to the tower’s exterior at several points. The flames continued from there to the insulation layer underneath, and then inside the building where interior decorations spread them further."

There is an alternative theory behind the fire’s quick spread. Heat transfer alone may have set fire to the building, said an architect who took part in the design of the TVCC. The reinforcing bars that cover the TVCC are metal and could have become superheated from the nearby explosions. If they became hot enough, said the architect, they could have kindled the insulation. Beijings Fire Brigade said the fire began on the building’s roof and spread to the lower floors, fed by high winds, while a CNN report posited “there was a lot of debris on site, which ignited very quickly.”

Chimney effects in the core may have accelerated the fire’s spread. Once the fire broke out, the hollow core between the fifth and twenty-sixth floors of the TVCC may have accelerated the burn. Moving air in this space would have provided the fire with ample oxygen, with pressure from the smoke, fire and hot air building inside the coreuntil finally it exploded outward, carrying the fire through the whole building in the blink of an eye. In fact, several explosions were seen and heard, according to reports from those who were on site. The Beijing Municipal Fire Bureau also confirmed that the TVCC’s core collapsed in the fire.

Because construction wasn’t yet completed and sprinkler system not installed, there was a long delay before the fire was suppressed.TVCC had followed all city building codes, which include leaving the sprinkler system unpressurized during construction, according to Aaron DeWoskin, an architect at Huatong Design & Consulting Engineering, a company that focuses on registration and city ordinances for construction and engineering projects in Beijing.

As for fireworks, they will not necessarily be banned in the future. In 2005, after a 12-year hiatus, Beijing along with 200 other Chinese cities lifted a ban on fireworks in the city center. Pan Shiyi, one of Beijing’s best-known developers as Chairman of the SoHo group, has been vocally critical on his blog, writing “In a city as big as Beijing, we really shouldn’t be allowed to set off fireworks.” Yet, the municipal government is focusing on the idea that it was an illegal, high-grade firework that set the building on fire, and not a result of normal New Year light works.

Neither Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture, which designed the complex for a budget near US$730 million, Arup East Asia, the local branch of the British design and engineering firm that worked on the complex, nor Mandarin Oriental, which is responsible for managing the hotel property, responded to calls or emails. But they all released statements and plan to announce further updates in the future. At this point, none have said whether the building will be torn down or renovations will commence on the standing skeleton. The building was scheduled to open mid-May and the hotel, which had been insured for 1.5 billion yuan (US$220 million), this summer. It is not immediately known whether the fire would postpone the official inauguration of the new CCTV tower, originally slated for October, nor the value of insurance payouts, which depend on the outcome of an ongoing investigation.