South Korean officials yesterday rushed to identify 37 victims of a hospital blaze and pinpoint the cause as South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited the burnt-out building and decried “one tragedy after another.”
Flames and toxic smoke on Friday swept through the Sejong Hospital in the southern city of Miryang, injuring more than 150 people, just weeks after a fire killed 29 people at a fitness center. All the hospital victims died from smoke inhalation.
Moon visited the fire scene where he spoke to grieving family members and firefighters.
“It is tragic and it hurts me to see this kind of one tragedy after another, even as the government has vowed to make this country safe,” Moon said.
He ordered a full inquiry and said “utmost government efforts” were needed to support the injured and families of the victims.
The government of Asia’s fourth-largest economy has faced criticism over poor safety standards, including the Sewol ferry disaster of 2014 in which more than 300 people drowned.
Hospital director Song Byeong-cheol said the six-story hospital did not have a sprinkler system and was not large enough to require one under the law.
The opposition Liberal Party was quick to condemn Moon for the disaster.
“The Moon administration should have at least kept South Koreans safe to justify the launch of this government,” the party said in a statement.
The ruling Democratic Party said it would “embark on parliamentary discussions to legally support and protect citizens’ lives and safety,” a spokesman said.
Safety checks at many private hospitals, including Sejong Hospital, were often carried out as a formality and not strictly enforced, Open Cyber University of Korea professor Ham Eun-gu said.
“Given that there has been a string of big fire accidents, the Moon administration won’t be able to just overlook this and let it go. [The government] will need to toughen fire safety regulations,” Ham said.
Last month, 29 people were killed in a blaze at an eight-story fitness center in Jecheon City, most of them women trapped in a sauna. That disaster fueled anger over reports of shoddy construction, among other shortcomings.
In 2014, a fire at a rural hospital killed 21 people, while a 2008 warehouse fire outside Seoul killed 40.
Many survivors of Friday’s blaze “walked though fire and smoke” to escape, a city official said on Friday.
Those on upper floors used fire engine ladders and plastic escape slides, while firefighters carried some who could not walk.
“I saw elderly patients scrambling out through the windows and had to help,” Woo Young-min said as he stood in pajamas outside the hospital.
The fire broke out at the rear of the emergency room on the hospital’s first floor, fire official Choi Man-woo said, adding that at least 177 patients were in the hospital and a nursing home next door when the fire broke out.
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