MIRYANG (South Korea) • A fire at a hospital and adjoining nursing home killed at least 37 people and injured more than 140 in the South Korean city of Miryang yesterday in the country's deadliest blaze in a decade.
Officials said they were still investigating the cause of the fire which engulfed Sejong Hospital, whose director said the current law did not require the building to have a sprinkler system.
The fire, officials said, erupted in the hospital's main building. Firefighters and hospital workers evacuated patients from an annexe that operated as a nursing home, carrying some of them on their backs.
Many patients "walked through fire and smoke" to escape from Sejong Hospital as the main exit was on the first floor, which was ablaze, a city official said. Those on upper floors used ladders and plastic escape slides to flee.
Videos posted on social media showed a patient hanging on to a rope dangling from a helicopter, and another crawling out of a window to climb down a ladder.
"So many lives were sacrificed and the people of our city, as well as those throughout the country, have fallen into deep grief," the city's mayor Park Il Ho told reporters.
The fire broke out at around 7.30am (6.30am Singapore time) at the rear of the emergency room on the hospital's first floor, fire chief Choi Man Woo told a televised news briefing. Most of those who died were on the first and second floors, said Mr Choi, but added that there were no deaths from burns.
At least 177 patients - most of them elderly - were at the main building of the hospital and the adjacent nursing home when the fire broke out, hospital director Song Byeong Cheol told reporters. Dr Song said three of the nine hospital staff on duty at the time died, comprising at least one doctor, a nurse and a nurse's aide, all killed on the second floor.
"According to an initial eyewitness, fire broke out where there were two air-conditioning and heating devices in the emergency room," Dr Song said. "Others said an electric spark occurred on the ceiling of the emergency room and then the fire spread quickly."
Dr Song said the six-storey hospital did not have a sprinkler system and was not large enough to require one under the law. The hospital was built to government standards, with fire exits and extinguishers, many of which were used during the fire, Dr Song added.
By yesterday afternoon, police had cordoned off the hospital as forensic investigators combed the smoke-blackened building. Charred debris and glass littered the ground outside.
South Korean President Moon Jae In expressed regret in an emergency meeting with advisers to discuss response measures, and urged utmost efforts to minimise casualties, his spokesman said.
Interior Minister Kim Boo Kyum, who visited Miryang, promised government help for victims, Yonhap news agency said.
The latest blaze occurred not long after a conflagration at a fitness centre in Jecheon city killed 29 people last month. It was South Korea's worst fire since 2008, when a warehouse fire in Icheon left 40 people dead.
NYTIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK