Forty-six people died and 41 were injured in a building fire that raged out of control for hours overnight in Kaohsiung, authorities said yesterday.
Flames and smoke billowed from the lower floors of the 13-story Cheng Chung Cheng (城中城) building on Fubei Road in Yancheng District (鹽埕), as firefighters tried to douse the blaze from the street and aerial platforms.
The death toll rose steadily through the day as rescue workers searched the combined commercial and residential building. By late afternoon, authorities said 32 bodies had been found, while a further 14 people who showed no signs of life were among 55 taken to the hospital.
The Kaohsiung Fire Bureau was notified of the fire at 2:54am, Kaohsiung Fire Bureau Chief Lee Ching-hsiu (李清秀) said, adding that the fire reportedly broke out on the first floor of the 40-year-old building and rose to the sixth floor, filling the seventh floor and above with smoke, which caused most of the casualties.
The blaze was put out by 7:17am, he said.
The bureau said that abandoned commercial properties on the first six floors of the complex contained large quantities of wooden decorations, which were consumed by the blaze, generating smoke that traveled throughout the structure.
Firefighters are combing the wreckage for survivors and investigating the cause of the blaze, he added.
A resident in a high-rise building across the street said they heard what sounded like a lover’s quarrel that preceded two loud sounds at about 2pm.
When they opened the window, they saw that the first floor of the building was on fire, the witness said.
Kaohsiung Police Commissioner Huang Ming-chao (黃明昭) said that police have summoned four people for questioning, including the person who reported the fire and witnesses.
Fubei Borough (府北) Warden Lin Chuan-fu (林傳富) said that more than 100 residents, many of them older people with dementia or physical disabilities, lived in the building.
The mixed-use complex was built in about 1981, and the first six floors previously housed restaurants, karaoke clubs and a movie theater.
Kaohsiung Public Works Bureau Director-General Su Chih-hsun (蘇志勳) said that fire safety issues were identified in the building during inspections in 2019, last year and May.
Efforts to address the issues were impeded by a dysfunctional building management committee, he said.
Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) visited people injured in the blaze at Kaohsiung Medical University Hospital and sent condolences to the families of those killed.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) instructed the Cabinet and the Kaohsiung City Government to step up search-and-rescue efforts and do everything they could to assist victims and their families, Presidential Office spokesman Xavier Chang (張惇涵) said.
Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) last night led city officials in a bow of apology for the incident, saying he felt profound guilt over the fire.
A task force would be organized to evaluate the city government’s management of the building and other aging buildings in the city, he said, adding that city officials would help with medical treatment, burials and relocating residents.
An expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that people living in and around the blaze’s point of origin were impoverished, and the building did not have an effective management board.
As a result, combustible materials inside were not removed from the first floor, which led to an uncontrolled fire, they said.
“Similar structures that pose a high risk to public safety can be found across Taiwan,” they said.
“Such tragedies will happen again until the government takes positive and effective steps to help disadvantaged people improve their living environments and gives them information about evacuation procedures,” they said.
Additional reporting by Hsu Li-chuan, Huang Chia-lin and Wu Jen-chieh
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