A fire broke out at Launch Technologies Co’s (明揚國際) golf ball factory in the Pingtung Technology Industrial Park (屏東科技產業園區) on Sept. 22, causing explosions and killing 10 people, including four courageous firefighters. As well as sorrow, this tragedy has prompted widespread discussion about firefighters’ safety and reflection over similar incidents that have occurred over the past few decades.
Taiwanese have been concerned about the issue for years and demand answers, as exemplified by the Public Television Service television drama Tears on Fire (火神的眼淚). So why has such a tragedy happened yet again?
Investigations after the Launch Technologies fire found that hazardous substances were stored at the factory in quantities far in excess of the regulatory limit. The company also contravened basic safety regulations that require such chemicals to be stored in buildings separate from offices and workshops.
The Pingtung County Bureau of Fire and Emergency Services said that it would impose heavy fines on those responsible for the blaze. The problem is that these infringements were only discovered afterward, and the fines, heavy as they might be, are only being imposed after lives have been lost. No amount of money can bring back the workers who died or the firefighters who were killed or injured after bravely attempting to extinguish the fire.
National Fire Agency Director-General Hsiao Huan-chang (蕭煥章), who took up the post in 2021, previously served in various fire departments. Hsiao said in an interview that he aimed to “make it very difficult for firefighters to be injured,” which would be good for recruiting more firefighters. He has also advocated for a “firefighting equipment and personnel act” and promoted a plan for improving technology used in disaster rescue. He has by no means been idle.
However, the reasons why the fire in Pingtung occurred and why it led to so many tragic injuries and deaths are no different from what has happened in the past. It was not until firefighters arrived on the scene that Launch Technologies sought to provide an inventory of hazardous substances stored on the factory site. The explosions started before they had even finished printing it.
An investigation found that the company had mismanaged various hazardous substances, but previous inspections failed to detect these infringements or instruct the company to correct them.
If the authorities had properly supervised businesses handling of hazardous substances, Launch Technologies could have avoided the injuries and deaths of its workers, not to mention the major loss of property and damage to the company’s reputation. Furthermore, the firefighters would not have needed to enter the burning factory and be killed by the explosions.
Critics have pilloried Pingtung County Fire Bureau Director Hsu Mei-hsueh (許美雪) for initially saying that the firefighters had caused the explosion by spraying water, whereas the highly professional crew was aware of the presence of hazardous substances that must not be sprayed with water and did not do so. Observers have criticized the appointment of Hsu, saying that her previous experience was unrelated to firefighting.
No matter whom local governments appoint to head their fire bureaus, the central government’s National Fire Agency has a duty to closely supervise and train them.
Taiwan is a key link in global supply chains and has many “hidden champion” enterprises. The downside is that industrial development inevitably involves many hazardous substances and raw materials. A society cannot abandon industrial development for fear of such things, but neither can it afford to be careless.
The National Fire Agency should work with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and other agencies to guide and convince businesses to recognize the importance of safety. No one should think that overlooking safety can save time and money. On the contrary, it can cause tragic and painful losses such as what happened in last month’s fire.
Businesses should be willing to cooperate with the National Fire Agency by accepting its guidance and improving the safety environment in their factories. Those who do not cooperate should be subject to extra-strict inspections. Where faults are found, they should have heavy fines imposed on them and be instructed to make improvements within a set time frame.
Once implemented, such measures would create a triple-win situation wherein businesses would avoid the risk of fire damage, firefighters would not have to put their lives at risk and the government would not keep getting grilled over its handling of accidents and disasters.
A technological approach to firefighting is key to keeping firefighters safe. For example, it would be better if firefighters could first send drones and surveillance robots into dangerous areas. If explosions occur, as they did in Pingutng, instead of killing people, only expendable machines would be destroyed.
However, it would take time to develop such technologies, and there are other priorities to deal with in the meantime.
Hsiao is not a poor performer, but the latest tragedy shows that he has failed to eradicate the most basic kind of danger facing firefighters. After three years in office, he cannot shirk his responsibility for this failure.
Last week Chen Chi-chung (陳吉仲) took responsibility and resigned from his post as minister of agriculture over the issue of imported eggs, which did not pose a threat to human life. His resignation is based on the principle that government officials should be accountable. The fire and explosions at the Launch Technologies factory are likely to do more damage than the egg issue to the reputations and electoral prospects of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
Hsiao should have the courage to take responsibility. His successor can then reassess the ministry’s priorities and propose improvements that can satisfy the public and give firefighters peace of mind.
Tommy Lin is president of the Formosa Republican Association.
Translated by Julian Clegg
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has a good reason to avoid a split vote against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in next month’s presidential election. It has been here before and last time things did not go well. Taiwan had its second direct presidential election in 2000 and the nation’s first ever transition of political power, with the KMT in opposition for the first time. Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was ushered in with less than 40 percent of the vote, only marginally ahead of James Soong (宋楚瑜), the candidate of the then-newly formed People First Party (PFP), who got almost 37
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate and New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) has called on his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) counterpart, William Lai (賴清德), to abandon his party’s Taiwanese independence platform. Hou’s remarks follow an article published in the Nov. 30 issue of Foreign Affairs by three US-China relations academics: Bonnie Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss and Thomas Christensen. They suggested that the US emphasize opposition to any unilateral changes in the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait, and that if Lai wins the election, he should consider freezing the Taiwanese independence clause. The concept of de jure independence was first
Many news reports about the Israel-Hamas war highlight casualties, deaths, and destruction. Journalists rarely delve into how either society has responded and mobilized to deal with the war. This article provides a brief view of how Israel and Israelis have reacted to the war as individuals, groups, and as a nation. A useful template for Taiwan to prepare for a potential future conflict with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is how Israelis self-organized to deal with this crisis. Prior to the Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7, Israelis were even more polarized about public policy than the US or Taiwan.
Following the failure of the proposed “blue-white alliance,” New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi named Broadcasting Corp of China (BCC) chairman Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) as his running mate on the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) presidential ticket, while the other prospective half of the alliance, Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) Chairman and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), named TPP Legislator Cynthia Wu (吳欣盈). The result is a three-horse race, which is getting tighter. Hou and Ko are likely to put all their focus on being seen as the top challenger to Vice President William Lai (賴清德), the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate, to