CCTV Fire Destroys Mandarin Oriental in Beijing

Blaze Caused by Fireworks Celebrating Lantern Festival

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Mandarin Oriental on fire started by CCTV staff
Mandarin Oriental on fire started by CCTV staff Credit: Ray Ally

BEIJING ( -- The Lantern Festival marking the first full moon in a new lunar year in the Chinese calendar used to be celebrated by children carrying decorative paper lanterns to local temples.

Since Beijing's government started allowing city residents to light fireworks during this festival, paper lanterns have evolved into massive pyrotechnic displays, which ended this year in disaster.

Staff at China Central Television (CCTV) accidentally started a massive and tragic blaze at the national broadcaster's new $714 million headquarters on Feb. 9, 2009.

Acting without permission, they hired a fireworks squad to shoot hundreds of huge firecrackers using the same type of equipment used during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games, also in Beijing.

The awesome display showered the ground with embers and charred debris. Some of the sparks landed on the roof of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, a 520-foot (159-meter) structure also under construction in the same complex. The development, designed by Dutch architects Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, was scheduled to open in May.

The top of the hotel began to smoke and soon erupted in a massive blaze that burned for almost six hours.

"According to the Beijing fire department, this fire occurred because the person in charge of the construction of the new building project of CCTV, without permission, hired staff to set off fireworks that violated regulations," said CCTV officials in a statement published on the broadcaster's web site.

Besides the damage to the luxury hotel, the fire caused millions of dollars in damage to a television studio and an electronic data processing center located in the same building.

One firefighter, Zhang Jianyong, died from suffocation. Seven more were placed in intensive care at a nearby hospital.

According to local press reports, policemen on patrol tried to interfere, insisting that the the excessive use of explosives required government approval, but CCTV officials ignored the warning.

On Feb. 10, the broadcaster apologized for causing the disaster in a statement published in the China Daily, a national state-run newspaper, the station said, "CCTV feels sorry for the great loss inflicted on national assets. CCTV sincerely apologizes for the traffic congestion and inconvenience to residents nearby."

The Mandarin Oriental hotel was scheduled to open in the second half of 2009, but the hotel said in a statement on its web site, "It is too early at the present stage to assess the full extent of the damage. We understand that a full investigation is underway and will take time to complete. Mandarin Oriental has signed a long term contract to manage the hotel and has no ownership interest in the building.

Read a first hand account of the tragedy, including photos and videos, published online by Ray Ally, executive director of brand consultancy at Landor Associates, who is based in Beijing.

CCTV has publicly apologized for causing the tragedy.
CCTV has publicly apologized for causing the tragedy. Credit: Ray Ally

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