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Fire destroys Beijing hotel tower

The blaze is believed to have been ignited by fireworks marking the end of the Lunar New Year. The nearly completed 44-story tower was part of a complex designed by architect Rem Koolhaas.

February 10, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — On a night when millions of Chinese revelers set off fireworks for the end of the Lunar New Year, one display Monday night sent a 44-story hotel up in flames, killing a firefighter and injuring 30 other people.

The dramatically angled building designed by Dutch architects Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren was part of a new headquarters complex for CCTV, scheduled to open later this year.

The main part of the center, shaped like trousers, did not appear to be damaged.

After initially blaming the blaze on illegal fireworks, the city government admitted today that CCTV, the government-owned broadcaster, was using the building to stage a televised holiday show. Tapes of the accident are expected to be reviewed in an effort to determine who approved the ill-fated spectacle.

The fire started about 8:20 p.m. near the roof. It crawled down one side of the building and appeared to ignite more fireworks, which kept bursting out in technicolor streaks.

"It was as though bombs were going off," said Aaron DeWoskin, an architect from Chicago who was across the street. "You had a lot of gunpowder, which is essentially what fireworks are, and it was going off in a chain reaction."

A tenant of a building across the street, who asked not be identified to avoid trouble, said, "There was definitely a planned show that had some unplanned consequences."

The blaze was visible for miles, lighting up the skyline over the eastern stretch of the central business district. Thousands of Beijingers watched, cellphone cameras poised.

The distinctive angles of the high-rise made it appear at one point as if the structure would collapse, and the crowd edged back. But the fire was under control by midnight and the gutted building still stood.

The part of the building destroyed was supposed to house a luxury hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, and a cultural center.

It was originally scheduled to open in spring, but construction had slowed because of the weak economy.

Each year, fireworks accidents kill dozens of people in China, especially during the Lunar New Year. Beijing has the tightest fireworks regulations in China, and only three years ago lifted a complete ban on their use in the capital.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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