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S'pore heroine of HK hostel fire in critical condition

Tiara Zhang, together with Kelvin Toh, represented Singapore in the 2010 World DanceSport Federation Asia-Pacific Championships and the Asian Indoor Games Vietnam 2009.

Publication Date : 12-01-2014


Dancer overwhelmed by smoke as she went knocking on doors to alert others to blaze


On the cool wintry morning of December 29, dancer Tiara Zhang Zhi Zhen woke up to the crackle and heat of flames engulfing the Hong Kong guesthouse she was staying at for a Christmas holiday.

Instead of dashing to safety right away, the 33-year-old Singaporean rushed to the rooms of other guests, hammering on doors and helping people to flee the smoke-filled firetrap.

That heroism may now cost her her life.

Zhang, who has represented Singapore in competitive ballroom dancing, is in a coma and her condition is precarious, a source told The Sunday Times.

Her family, keeping vigil at Ruttonjee Hospital in Wan Chai, declined to be interviewed, but her brother, an engineer, sent a message through the Singapore consulate saying: "We are grateful for all the concern and well wishes of everyone. My sister is still in critical condition and our current focus is to continue to pray for her speedy recovery."

Zhang works as an account director at events marketing agency George P. Johnson. Her father is retired and her mother is a housewife.

"She was actually the first to wake up from the fire," said the source. "But she was a heroine. Instead of escaping herself, she went round to wake up the other guests and helped them escape."

In the process, Zhang inhaled too much smoke. The oxygen flow to her brain was cut off, her heart stopped, and she was unconscious by the time she was taken to hospital.

Altogether, 25 people were injured in the fire, seven critically. Zhang is the only one still in a coma.

Five other Singaporeans who were taken to hospital, including three friends travelling with her, have been discharged and have returned home.

The fire started at 7.23am that day, when construction debris in the back alley of Continental Mansion, a 24-storey residential building in North Point, caught fire.

The fire quickly climbed up the bamboo scaffolding and mesh cover of the building, which was undergoing maintenance work.

The Yesinn guesthouse, where Zhang and her friends stayed, had units on the third, fifth, 10th and 15th floors.

The incident has cast a spotlight on Hong Kong's regulation of such guesthouses, popular with budget travellers. Many are located within

residential buildings which critics say may not have the infrastructure - such as adequate escape exits - to cope with large numbers.

Zhang's friends are hoping for the recovery of the woman they invariably described as kind, caring and positive.

A good friend, Christine Chong, who works in the travel industry, said: "Initially I could not believe it." She later received updates from Zhang's family confirming what happened.

Kelvin Toh, Zhang's dance partner with whom she represented Singapore in competitions such as the 2010 World DanceSport Federation Asia-Pacific Championships in South Korea and the Asian Indoor Games Vietnam 2009, said he was not surprised by what she did that day.

"She will not leave anyone behind and will always give others a helping hand," said the 31-year-old dance coach who has known Zhang since 2004.

He recalled a time when he was preparing secondary school students for a concert and asked her to help with their make-up. "She actually took leave to help me do the make-up for 20 girls," he said.

Her generosity and selflessness make her stand out among other dancers, said Namiko Takahashi Chan-Lee, 40, a hula dance teacher, who met Zhang at a flamenco dance class.

"Some dancers are obsessed with themselves, but she is always very caring, looking out for others if you need help," she said. "Whenever I was falling behind in rehearsals, she would help out."

Toh described Zhang as a "very elegant dancer". She also appears to be an avid photographer with photo albums put up on image-sharing website Shutterfly - including one of an earlier, happier trip to Hong Kong in 2008.

On her website, she included a quote from United States President Barack Obama: "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

Said Toh: "She is one of the most kind-hearted persons I have ever met and I hope that hao ren you hao bao - the good will get their reward - and that she recovers."



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