SEOUL (AFP, REUTERS) - An early morning fire at a hospital in South Korea on Friday (Jan 26) has killed at least 37 people with more than 70 injured, Yonhap news agency reported.
Videos posted on social media showed a patient hanging on to a rope dangling from a helicopter above Sejong Hospital in Miryang city, and another crawling out of a window to climb down a ladder.
The six-storey structure housed a nursing home as well as the hospital, when the fire broke out at around 7.30am local time (6.30am Singapore time). Miryang is about 380 km south-east of the capital Seoul.
The presidential Blue House initially said the hospital fire killed at least 41, but then deferred to the city's fire chief who put the death toll at 37.
The fire is the deadliest in South Korea in at least a decade, according to Yonhap news agency, and also the latest tragedy to raise concerns over the country's safety standards.
"Two nurses said they had seen fire suddenly erupting in the emergency room," said head of Miryang fire station Choi Man Woo, but the cause of the blaze was not immediately known.
All the patients had been brought out, he said, adding that evacuating 15 patients from the intensive care unit on the third floor took longer as firefighters had to wait for medical staff to supervise the process.
"The victims came both from the hospital and the nursing home," he said. "Some died on their way to another hospital."
A National Fire Agency spokesman said the death toll could rise further. It is the second devastating blaze in just a month in the advanced country, Asia's fourth-largest economy.
Video footage and pictures showed the building engulfed by heavy dark smoke and surrounded by multiple fire trucks.
Survivors were brought out wrapped in blankets, and firefighters picked their way through the blackened shell of the building after the blaze was extinguished.
Around 200 people were in the Sejong Hospital building when the fire broke out, police said.
Hospital director Song Byeong Cheol said the hospital did not have a sprinkler system and was not large enough to require one under South Korean law. He also said the hospital had regular safety inspections. Officials said they are still investigating the cause.
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 Park Soo Hyun said.
Moon ordered the cause of the fire to be swiftly identified "to prevent confusion among families", Park added.
The fire came only a month after 29 people were killed in an inferno at a fitness club in the South Korean city of Jecheon - a disaster blamed on insufficient emergency exits, flammable finishing materials and illegally parked cars blocking access to emergency vehicles.
Friday's fire is South Korea's worst since 2008, when a blaze at a warehouse in the city of Incheon killed 40 workers.
The worst fire ever in modern South Korea was an arson attack on a subway station in the southeastern city of Daegu in 2003 that left 192 people dead and nearly 150 injured.