by Huizhong Wu | The Associated Press
Kaohsiung, Taiwan: At least 46 people were killed and 41 others injured when a fire broke out at a mixed commercial and residential building in the Taiwanese port city of Kaohsiung early on Thursday.
Neighborhood residents said the 13-storey building was home to many poor, elderly and disabled people and it was not clear how many of the 120 units were occupied.
Witnesses said they heard something that sounded like an explosion around 3 a.m. when a fire broke out in the lower floors of the building, which houses a closed movie theater, abandoned restaurant and karaoke club.
70-year-old Tsai Hsiu-chin had been living in this building for 15 years. At 3 in the morning, he heard someone shouting “fire”. He said he took the elevator down, with only clothes on his back.
“I didn’t bring anything. I just cared about saving my life,” she said, sitting in front of the burnt-out building Thursday night, trying to process her experience over a beer with a friend.
Across the street, Lin Chi-ying said she was woken up by the sound of an ambulance and fire engines in her home. “I thought our house would burn down too,” she said.
Firefighters had to struggle till after 7 am to douse the fire. It appears that many of the upper floors have not been directly damaged. However, the smoke was so thick that dozens of people living above the fire died and many were injured.
During Thursday, first responders looked through the rubble and recovered dozens of bodies. Another 14 of the 55 were initially taken to hospital, confirmed dead on or soon after their arrival.
According to Taiwan’s Central News Agency, officials said the age of the building and piles of rubble was hampering access to several areas, complicating search and rescue efforts.
Later in the day, the smell of smoke still persisted and the sound of breaking glass was heard throughout the area. Construction workers were erected on a crane to break the remaining glass from the window frame with a crowbar, and waited for the scaffolding to be put in place to prevent further danger to the building.
A crowd of dispersed people gathered on the road. Eager onlookers got on his scooter and stopped to look at the damage.
The decades-old apartment building is one of many in Yancheng District, an older part of Kaohsiung, a city of about 2.8 million people in southwestern Taiwan.
“For the families and Yancheng, I feel incomparable pain and I blame myself deeply,” Mayor Chen Chi Mai said apologizing at a news conference. “Here I want to express my deepest condolences to all the injured and those who died, as well as their families and all the residents.”
The fire appears to have started on the ground floor but it was not immediately clear where and the cause is still being investigated.
The United Daily News said investigators were focusing on the first-floor tea shop where the fire broke out, and police were searching for a resident who allegedly had a fight with his girlfriend on Wednesday. The newspaper said they did not rule out arson.
The United Daily News, a leading newspaper, reported that fire extinguishers were installed last month, but only three per floor because residents could not pay more.
In 1995, a fire at a nightclub in Taichung, Taiwan’s third largest city, killed 64 people in the country’s worst disaster in recent times.