Authorities in Taiwan were chasing the cause of a fire that broke out in a run-down commercial and residential building in the port city of Kaohsiung on Friday, which left 46 people dead and 41 injured.
The fire that broke out in the early hours of Thursday in the 13-storey building, which is home to many poor, elderly and disabled people, lasted for hours.
Eyewitnesses said they heard an explosion-like sound around 3am when fire broke out in the lower floors of the building, which houses the abandoned restaurants and karaoke clubs.
According to local media reports, police are questioning a resident who allegedly threw a burning incense coil into a trash can inside the apartment building, where he also kept small gas cans. The report said that a man carelessly throwing cigarettes outside the building and the possibility of a fire in the electrical system are also being investigated.
Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chi-mai did not comment on the details, but said the investigation would include “administrative responsibility” issues. He spoke to reporters at a city funeral home where traditional Buddhist and Taoist rites are held for the dead.
On Friday morning, the building was surrounded by wire fence and support scaffolding, and the street in front was reopened to traffic. The building did not appear to be in danger of collapsing, although the lower floors of the building were dark and smoke filled the outside of the upper apartments.
Lee Mao-sheng, 61, who lives across the street, said his friend Tseng Yong-kang died in the fire. Lee said that Tseng, who uses a wheelchair, enjoys raising pigeons and will free them to fly in the urban area. They both played mahjong.
Lee said he hadn’t seen Tseng in a while because the door on the building’s elevator didn’t open often, and the residents didn’t have the money to maintain the elevator.
“Most of the people living inside were not in good health. Many of them had a disability,” Lee said. He said the main reason people live there in less than ideal conditions is cheap rent.
Tsai Hsiu-Chin, 70, who has lived in the building for 15 years, said she ran away with her clothes on after hearing someone shout “fire” at 3 am.
“I didn’t bring anything. I just cared about saving my life,” he said Thursday night, sitting across from the charred building as he tried to process his experience over a beer with a friend.
Lin Chie-ying, across the street, said that she woke up at her home to the sound of ambulance and fire trucks. “I thought our house would burn, too,” he said.
While firefighters put out the fire until 7 am, heavy smoke covered the upper floors.
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.
The decades-old apartment building is one of many in the Yancheng district, the older part of Kaohsiung, a city of 2.8 million people in southwestern Taiwan.
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 fire at a nightclub in Taichung, Taiwan’s third largest city, killed 64 people in the country’s deadliest disaster in recent times.