KAOHSIUNG, TAIWAN (AFP) - Taiwan's residents voiced anguish and outrage on Friday (Oct 15) after 46 people perished in an inferno that tore through a dilapidated housing block as investigators searched for what sparked the island's deadliest fire in decades.
The blaze is the latest tragedy to highlight concerns over lax safety standards in Taiwan and has exposed the poor living conditions of many elderly in a society that is rapidly ageing.
The fire broke out in the early hours of Thursday morning in a 13-storey, mixed-use building in the southern city of Kaohsiung, raging through multiple floors before firefighters finally got it under control.
The rundown housing block was in poor condition and many of those killed were low-income elderly people, some of whom had disabilities and dementia. Officials said 41 people were hospitalised.
On Friday morning, Mr Lee Mao-shen, 61, was watching pigeons land on the railings of an apartment where a friend had died the night before.
Mr Lee, who has lived in a building opposite for 40 years, said his friend Cheng Yong-kang raised pigeons from his seventh- floor balcony and was among those who never made it out.
"We met every day to chat, we chatted the evening he died," he told AFP.
Mr Lee described the neighbourhood where the fire broke out as "mostly working-class folks and old people".
The gutted complex where his friend died used to be a vibrant spot but, much like the rest of the district, it had fallen on hard times.
"There was a shopping mall, a cinema in there," he recalled. But in recent years, the commercial floors were empty and abandoned.
Fire officials said one of the reasons the blaze burned so fiercely was that the bottom five commercial floors were filled with debris and discarded items that generated huge amounts of smoke, which then engulfed the residential apartments above.
Ms Lin Chieh-ying, a retired ballet teacher who also lives opposite, said the building had become dilapidated 20 years ago when a fire broke out in a now-shuttered department store.
No one was killed in that blaze but much of the building fell into disrepair.
"Now there are always people drinking at night and being rowdy," she said. "They should have torn down that building 20 years ago."
The fire started on the ground floor, and multiple residents reported hearing loud bangs before seeing flames and smoke.
Local media published recent images from inside the building that showed exposed wiring, rusted water pipes and stairwells obstructed by detritus.
The Taipei Times quoted Kaohsiung Public Works Bureau director-general Su Chih-hsun as saying multiple fire safety issues were identified during inspections in 2019, 2020 and earlier this year.
But efforts to fix the issues were hampered by a dysfunctional building management committee, Mr Su said.
As an island frequently battered by earthquakes and typhoons, Taiwan has strict building codes and a generally good safety record.
But there is often a gap between what the rules state and how safety standards are applied, especially in older buildings.
Kaohsiung's mayor said a task force would be set up to study the city's management of the building and other ageing structures.
Taiwan is one of the so-called "Asian Tigers" that saw its economy leapfrog last century with rapid industrialisation. But inequality is entrenched and many elderly people have been left behind.
Like Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, Taiwan is rapidly ageing.
Last year, the island recorded more deaths than births - a watershed moment that signals its population officially contracted for the first time.