International News

    South Korea hospital fire: dozens dead and many injured

    At least 37 people have been killed and dozens injured in a fire at a hospital and nursing home in South Korea on Friday, in the country’s deadliest blaze for a decade.
    The fire at Sejong hospital in the south-eastern city of Miryang – weeks after a similar tragedy in another South Korean city – is certain to raise questions about building and safety standards.
    The office of the president, Moon Jae-in, had previously put the death toll at 41, but it was revised down on the advice of Miryang’s fire chief.
    Many patients walked through flames and smoke to escape the first-floor blaze, according to local officials.
    The dead included a doctor, a nurse and a nursing assistant, according to the hospital’s director, Song Byeong-chol.
    Song said in a televised briefing that the six-storey hospital did not have sprinklers, and was not large enough to require one under the law. However, interior ministry guidelines published in December 2016 suggest sprinklers for all buildings of six or more storeys.
    Song said the hospital had regular safety inspections and was planning to install sprinklers in the coming week.
    Officials said they were still investigating the cause and were looking at a possible short circuit in the emergency room’s heating and cooling system.
    Some patients on upper floors used ladders and plastic escape slides, while firefighters carried patients who were unable to walk. 
    Jang Yeong-jae, a patient, said he was on the second floor when nurses raised the alarm and told people to leave through emergency exits.
    “But when I opened the exit door, the whole stairway was filled with dark smoke and I couldn’t see a thing,” he told the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper. “Everybody was running around in panic, falling over and screaming as smoke filled the rooms.”
    Jang escaped by ripping open window screens and climbing on to a ladder put up by firefighters.
    Videos posted on social media showed a patient hanging on to a rope dangling from a helicopter above the hospital, and another crawling out of a window to climb down a ladder. Other footage showed the building engulfed by thick smoke and surrounded by fire trucks.
    A list posted by fire officials outside the hospital identified at least 26 of the victims, with their ages ranging from 35 to 96. At least 20 were aged over 70. The national fire agency said 125 people had been injured, 14 of them seriously.
    At least 177 patients were in the hospital building and adjacent nursing home when the fire broke out at about 7.30am local time, Yonhap news agency said. Almost all the victims appeared to have died from smoke inhalation, it added.
    “Two nurses said they had seen fire suddenly erupting in the emergency room,” said the fire chief, Choi Man-woo. Most of those who died were on the first and second floors, said Choi, adding there were no deaths from burns. All the remaining patients had been evacuated, he added.
    TV reports showed survivors being brought out wrapped in blankets, and firefighters picking their way through the blackened shell of the building after the blaze was extinguished.

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