KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan (AP) – At least 46 people were killed and 41 injured in a fire that broke out in a decades-old commercial and residential building in Taiwan’s port city of Kaohsiung earlier on Thursday, officials said.
Neighborhood residents said that the 13-storey building hosts many poor, elderly and disabled people and it is not clear how many of the 120 units are occupied.
Eyewitnesses said they heard an explosion-like sound at around 3 am when a fire broke out in the building’s lower floors, which include a closed movie theater, abandoned restaurants and karaoke clubs.
Lin Chie-ying said she woke up to the sounds of ambulance and fire trucks in her house opposite the fire.
“I thought our house would burn, too,” he said.
The apartment building is one of many in the Yancheng district, a former part of Kaohsiung, a city of 2.8 million people in southwestern Taiwan.
“I feel incomparable pain for the families and Yancheng, and I deeply blame myself,” Mayor Chen Chi Mai said at a press conference. “I want to express my deepest condolences to all the injured and dead, their families and all residents here,” he said.
Firefighters worked until 7 am to put out the fire. It turned out that many of the upper floors were not directly damaged.
Later in the day, the smell of smoke still lingered in the area, and the sound of shattering windows rang. Construction workers were elevated on a crane to break the remaining glass from the window frames with a crowbar to remove further hazards.
On Thursday, first responders examined the wreckage and found dozens of bodies. Of the 55 people who were initially taken to the hospital, 14 were confirmed to have died on arrival or shortly thereafter.
Officials said the age of the building and piles of debris blocking access to many areas made search and rescue efforts difficult, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.
It appears that the fire started on the ground floor, but it was not immediately clear where exactly it was and the cause is still being investigated.
United Daily News said investigators focused on a first-floor tea shop where the fire started, and police were investigating a resident who reportedly had a fight with his girlfriend earlier Wednesday. The newspaper said they did not rule out the possibility of arson.
Fire extinguishers were installed last month, but only three per floor as residents couldn’t afford to pay more, the major newspaper United Daily News reported.
A 1995 nightclub fire in Taichung, Taiwan’s third largest city, killed 64 people in the country’s deadliest disaster in recent times.