Thousands mourn at scene of Shanghai fire

SHANGHAI, November 21, 2010 (AFP) - Tens of thousands of people laid flowers Sunday at the blackened shell of a Shanghai high-rise apartment where a raging fire left 58 dead, as the city marked the peak of the traditional mourning period.

Lines of solemn mourners stretched for several blocks under the watch of hundreds of police, who allowed them to slowly file past the front of the building and place chrysanthemums, a traditional Chinese symbol of mourning.

"I didn't expect so many people would come. I only wanted to have a look but didn't expect so many people would show up here with flowers," said Xu Xinfang, 27, as she carried a bouquet toward the foot of the building.

The inferno in the 28-storey block caused some panicked residents to attempt desperate jumps to safety or seek refuge on construction scaffolding surrounding the structure.

Shanghai residents have been going to the scene for days but Sunday's crowds were the largest yet. According to Chinese tradition the seventh day after a death, counting inclusively, marks the height of the mourning period.

Tens of thousands of people joined the procession as volunteers handed out free flowers stem by stem.

Chinese authorities' uneasiness toward mass gatherings was also on show as more than 500 uniformed and plainclothes police directed the crowds and dispersed agitated residents who were talking about the fire.

"There are more people here than yesterday. It shows the great sadness of the Chinese people," said Harry Zhu, a 40-year-old office worker, who returned on Sunday with his wife, daughter and mother after visiting the day before.

Families have set up small altars with portraits of the deceased, where they burned candles and incense.

Posters around the scene featured a black ribbon and the messages "Don't cry Shanghai" and "Mourn the victims in Shanghai's Jiaozhou Road Fire" in English and Chinese.

A preliminary investigation has blamed Monday's blaze on on careless work by unlicensed welders who ignited nylon netting swathing the building, which was being renovated.

Police are holding 12 people in connection with the fire, a government spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity told AFP.

China has ordered a nationwide overhaul of fire-control measures after the disaster, the latest incident to highlight chronic poor fire safety in the country.