Governments often overreact in less than useful ways when a disaster catches national attention. Taiwan is no exception. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, when many people were afraid of getting infected with an unknown, seemingly deadly disease, the military were ordered onto the streets of Taipei to spray chlorine onto the concrete — as if people caught SARS from the ground.
When Greater Taichung Mayor Jason Hu’s (胡志強) wife, Shaw Hsiao-ling (邵曉鈴), was nearly killed in a freeway incident in 2006, the Directorate-General of Highways passed a rash of regulations, including no overtaking on the right and mandatory seatbelts, that have yet to be effectively enforced.
Now a political brouhaha is brewing over a fire that claimed the lives of nine partygoers at the ALA Pub in Greater Taichung in the late hours of Saturday night. The fire was allegedly started by a dance performance in which 28-year-old Chu Chuan-yi (朱傳毅) was waving around a lit torch. What has not been reported is whether this was a Roman-candle fire cracker, a Kevlar wick dipped in kerosene or some other type of fire implement. Legally, there is a big difference in the props used in performances involving fire and the safety precautions that apply.
In typical style, however, municipal governments and the legislature have overreacted by calling for a blanket ban on indoor fire shows. This is most likely to obscure officials’ own culpability in the pub deaths and place the onus firmly on performers.
By detaining Chu and ALA Pub owner Wang Ming-che (王銘哲), questioning them, releasing them on bail and charging them with involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors are turning them into scapegoats.
Government officials, such as fire inspectors, who like to hide behind the scenes, are hoping that by remaining quiet none of the blame comes their way.
By calling for a blanket ban and tougher inspections of pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues, officials can give the appearance of doing something proactive, when what they are really doing is providing cover for those whose lax standards allowed such a disaster to happen in the first place.
These blanket bans punish people who were not connected in any way to this incident.
There are other obvious problems in this case. The ALA Pub somehow passed 21 safety inspections, despite packing hundreds of customers into a 99m2 space with few exits, no sprinkler system and highly flammable walls and ceilings. For the entire roof of the venue to go up in flames in just three minutes, it was clearly made out of very combustible materials.
As an obvious nightclub — its name was ALA Pub, after all, not Green Tea Express — on a street full of nightclubs, ALA should have been subject to stringent inspections, not those designed for tea houses. It is surely of more than passing interest to find out who was in charge of inspecting night clubs on this street, and ask why a club with so many safety violations was allowed to remain open, as Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Yeh Yi-jin (葉宜津) has suggested.
Whatever the case, it seems that those who should really be held responsible — like the fire officials in charge of inspecting Taichung pubs — have been able to extricate themselves from immediate danger by directing public anger over the deaths at pub owners and “fire performers,” even when the majority of them do their utmost to observe the strictest safety standards.