Tragic high-rise tumble sets alarm bells ringing in Vietnam

A four-year-old girl was playing cheerfully with an iPad next to an open window in her family's 15th floor apartment.

In a flash, the tablet slipped out of her hand and spun its way through the air.

Instinctively, the girl reached out to capture the device. Tragically, it was to be the last action she ever took.

Onlookers later watched in horror as the grief-stricken mother wailed over her daughter's lifeless body on the pavement.

That was the tragedy that befell a family in Phu My Thuan Building in Nha Be District, HCM City earlier this month.

Buoyed by urbanisation and the allure of fancy lifestyles, a growing number of young families in big cities are choosing to live in high-rise appartments.

While many find such accommodation affordable, comfortable and safe enough for them to keep an eye on their playful children, they need to be aware of the hidden dangers.

Though statistics on deaths or injuries from such falls remain undocumented in Viet Nam, a growing number of mass media reports in recent years have shocked the public and brought the situation into the limelight.

The girl's death in this story was the third such tragedy reported since July this year.

The two other victims were both aged five and lived in the other two big cities of Ha Noi and Da Nang.

In most cases, the children lost their lives after falling through sliding glass windows or off of balconies.

A report jointly released in June by the Child Care and Protection Department of the labour, invalids and social affairs ministry, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Ha Noi School of Public Health, indicated that falls ranked second, behind traffic accidents, in non-fatal injuries among Vietnamese children.

The report, provided by the department's deputy head Nguyen Trong An, also revealed that over 60 per cent of child deaths from falling occurred within their home precinct.

An admitted the safety of children in high-rise apartments is "critically alarming," and attributed the threat largely to the negligence of parents and/or care-givers. In many cases, tragedy has struck while adults were out of sight.

He added that construction design error, if any, is a secondary factor.

As a notable expert advocating child safety, An is reasonably placed to attribute blame towards parents.

But I believe putting safety first when designing and building high-rises, would seriously minimise the number of misfortunes.

Evidently, safety is mentioned in the Ministry of Construction's design standards issued in 2004. It stipulates that only loggias, rather than balconies, are allowed in apartments from the sixth floor upwards and they must be at least 1.2m in height.

"No rule limits the height of windows, or requires the builders to make window bars," An points out.

Some have argued that barred windows are fire hazards, but An hits back: "That might be true in exceptional circumstances, but it's imperative that we ensure safety for residents in their daily lives," An fought back.

Worse still, even the existing regulations have not been enforced properly. Around Ha Noi or HCM City, many apartments at the 10th floor or higher, are seen with balconies.

Le Van Thinh, an official from the State Department on Assessment of Construction Works' Quality, in his recent interview with the Radio Voice of Viet Nam, traced the problem to "heartless" designers who follow investors' demands regardless of construction rules.

But will isolated incidents be enough to persuade the construction ministry to review its eight-year-old regulations?

According to another ministry official, who wished to remain anonymous, following public outrage over the tragic accidents, instructions were sent to various departments calling for better enforcement of existing rules.

I doubt whether these instructions had much impact.

While it might take ages for official action, scores of parents have attempted to solve the problem themselves with a range of novel ideas.

Phan Thanh Huyen, a Hanoian mother of two mischievous boys aged two and eight, said owners of apartments – either old or new – have made bars for the windows, and so-called "iron cages" around the balconies.

Another family living in Trung Hoa Building, one of Ha Noi's modern high-rises, has come up with a smart way to protect their children by securing the upper part of their windows with a screw so that they can only be opened by a safe amount.

Worried parents seem to be leading the way in making homes safe.

But this is just a small minority; the rest of society needs better support if we are to avert further tragedy. — VNS

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