A woman was yesterday detained and a man released on bail as prosecutors investigate the cause of a building fire in Kaohsiung that claimed 46 lives and injured dozens on Thursday.
The fire in the Cheng Chung Cheng (城中城) building in Yancheng District (鹽埕) in the early hours of Thursday morning is the second-deadliest building fire in Taiwan, after a February 1995 blaze at Weierkang Club in Taichung killed 64 people.
At least 46 residents of the building in Kaohsiung, most of whom were elderly, died in the blaze, the latest tally showed.
The Kaohsiung District Prosecutors’ Office said in a statement that a man surnamed Kuo (郭), in his 50s, and his 51-year-old girlfriend, surnamed Huang (黃), “are suspected of being involved in the fire” after investigators collected evidence onsite, examined security footage and obtained witness accounts.
The couple denied setting the fire on purpose, and Huang, following questioning by prosecutors, was detained, while Kuo was released on NT$60,000 (US$2,141) bail.
A source involved in the probe said that evidence so far suggests that the fire started in a small room at the back of a shop selling teaware on the building’s ground floor.
Kuo and Huang often used the small room, where, Kuo, Huang and another man gathered to drink alcohol on Wednesday evening, the source said.
Kuo later left the shop, possibly after a quarrel with Huang, followed shortly thereafter by the other man, the source said, adding that Huang was the last person to leave the shop and shortly after her departure the fire started.
Investigators found burnt-out incense burner and a tin can in the room, but it remains unclear if the objects are connected to the cause of the fire, the source said.
The Kaohsiung City Government said the building had been required to follow fire codes and submit to inspections, but inspectors had not been able to access the premises because the doors were locked and they were unable to coordinate visits with the property’s owners.
Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) said that he had ordered the deputy mayor to set up an independent team to investigate whether negligence contributed to the blaze.
Of the dead, 21 have still not been identified, Chen said.
Experts hoped to use fingerprint analysis to determine who 19 of the victims were, but for two they would have to rely on other methods, he added.
Families of victims had a Taoist priest chant a prayer at the site for those who died.
According to neighborhood residents, the building was home to many poor, elderly and disabled people, and many appear to have been trapped in their apartments during the blaze.
A man surnamed Lee (李), 61, who lives across the street, said a friend who used a wheelchair died in the fire.
“The people who lived inside, many of them were not in good health. Many of them had a disability,” Lee said, adding that the inexpensive rent was the main reason people lived there in less than ideal conditions.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Vice President William Lai (賴清德) yesterday pledged to donate one month of their salaries to the Kaohsiung Bureau of Social Affairs’ special disaster relief account.
Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) and Legislative Speaker You Si-kun (游錫堃) also pledged to donate one month’s salary to the account.
Among the politicians pledging to donate to the fund were New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜), Tainan Mayor Huang Wei-che (黃偉哲), Chiayi County Commissioner Weng Chang-liang (翁章梁) and Chen, who said that he and 41 city officials would donate one month’s salary to the account.
The Ministry of Finance yesterday, on behalf of all state-owned businesses, said it would donate NT$22.5 million to the account.
Additional reporting by Wu Chi-lun and Hung Chen-hung
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