“It was a sea of ​​flames”: at least 46 dead in apartment fire in Taiwan

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TAIPEI, Taiwan – It was known among locals as the “No. 1 Ghost Building” – a once thriving property that began to deteriorate badly after a fire two decades ago. Squatters and players have moved in. Heaps of debris blocked the stairwells.

Early Thursday, a fire ripped through the 13-story building in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s main port city, killing at least 46 people and injuring dozens. The blaze, Taiwan’s deadliest in decades, underscored concerns about the island’s lax safety standards.

At least 41 other people were being treated for injuries, local firefighters said. The cause of the fire is under investigation, said Lee Ching-hsiu, the city’s fire chief.

Surveillance footage from a nearby building showed a flash of light on the first floor, and soon the entire floor was engulfed in flames, according to local reports. Photos and videos circulating online showed elderly residents dazed and covered in soot being escorted out of the charred building, some on stretchers.

Firefighters received the first calls for help around 3 a.m. Thursday and extinguished the blaze about four hours later. In the afternoon, they were still looking for survivors in the building, which was inhabited by around 120 families, mostly low-income and older residents living between the seventh and 11th floors.

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“It was a sea of ​​flames,” Lin Chuan-fu, 57, a resident of Kaohsiung who lives near the building, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Lin said that a loud explosion woke him up around 3 am, and he went to the street to see what was going on. He said the flames quickly moved from the ground floor to the upper floors. He added that he was concerned that some of the older residents living on the upper floors would have difficulty evacuating in the dark.

“They may not have had enough time to come out,” he said.

Built in the 1980s, the commercial and residential building by the Love River in central Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s third largest city, was once packed with restaurants, karaoke lounges, and a movie theater. But conditions in the building began to deteriorate after a fire broke out there in 1999, according to local reports. Although no one died in this fire, the building has been partially abandoned.

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Recent photos and videos have shown what appeared to be alarming security conditions inside the building, including exposed power cables, corroded water pipes and piles of rubbish clogging dark stairwells.

Several developers have attempted to take over and renovate the building in recent years, according to Apple Daily, a local media outlet. But these efforts met with resistance from residents of the building.

Taiwan has an uneven fire safety record. Thursday’s tragedy was Taiwan’s deadliest building fire since 1995, when a fire broke out at a karaoke club in downtown Taichung, killing 64 people. This blaze was the deadliest in a series of major fires in Taiwan around this time, and has led some to wonder if the autonomous island, in its drive to democratize and grow economically, had overlooked the problems of basic security in a rush. develop.

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In 2018, an explosion at an oil refinery in northern Taiwan sparked a fire that took hours to go out. In July, four people who had been placed in mandatory coronavirus quarantine at a hotel in central Taiwan died after being ordered to stay in their rooms even after the alarm went off. The hotel had been inspected by firefighters two months earlier.

Lin Chin-rong, deputy mayor of Kaohsiung, said the Kaohsiung building has been inspected by police and firefighters four times since 2019. He said an inspection notice was posted on the building not later than Tuesday, but a barrier had prevented firefighters from reaching the upper floors.

He added that local firefighters and government construction workers had been in contact with the building’s self-proclaimed officials days before the fire broke out.

“It is very unfortunate that such a bad thing happened before the improvements could be completed,” said Mr. Lin.