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Fatal Fire In Ho Chi Minh City

A fire swept through a building that houses offices of foreign companies, shops and a popular disco in Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday, killing at least 54 people and injuring more than 100, officials and news reports said.

At least one unidentified foreign man was among those killed, and six staff members of an American insurance company were missing, officials said.

Dozens more people were believed trapped, firefighters said.

Firefighters only managed to enter the six-story building in early evening, four hours after it started, because of the intense heat and lingering flames.

At least one person could be seen at a window trying to summon rescuers, but firefighters said they did not have the necessary equipment to reach him. Flames raged at other windows.

"Fighting the fire was very difficult. Many people were trapped inside," said fire chief Le Tan Buu.

The International Trading Center building has several floors of shops and about 50 offices. The American International Assurance Co. was conducting a training program in the building for about 100 insurance agents when the fire began, said a company official who identified herself only as Tien. Six staff members were missing and about 30 were injured, some seriously, she said, without specifying their nationalities.

"A bell rang, and then the electricity cut off," she said. "The fire came very fast."

A wedding reception was also being held in the building, Ho Chi Minh City Television said. It said about 500 people were inside when the fire broke out.

The cause of the fire in the city's downtown area was not immediately known, but police said they suspected it started in the Blue Disco, the city's most popular dance spot. The disco has been attacked in the state-controlled press in recent days for allegedly condoning "social evils" such as drug use.

State-run Vietnam Television said at least 54 people were dead and called it the city's deadliest fire. Hospital officials said more than 100 were hospitalized, many with serious injuries.

"What is worrying is that firefighters were not equipped with the necessary equipment to put out the fire. It took them more than three hours to bring the water hose inside the building, and sometimes they did not have enough water," the television station said.

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly named Saigon, is Vietnam's southern commercial center.

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