TAINAN: At least 12 people were killed and 60 injured when an early-hours blaze tore through a hospital catering mainly to bed-ridden and mentally ill seniors in southern Taiwan on Tuesday, health authorities said.
The fire started in a nursing facility housing more than 100 elderly and mentally ill patients in Tainan city who were evacuated during the incident, a local health official said.
An earlier estimate by an official had placed the number of injured at 72 but the figure was revised down in a health department statement.
The cause of all the deaths was believed to be smoke inhalation while the injured were rushed to a dozen hospitals for treatment, the official said.
It was the worst hospital fire in recent years and the cause of the fire is under investigation, she added.
Fire officials said that the blaze possibly started in a storage room on the second floor of the five-floor building, a branch of the public Sinying Hospital.
Television footage showed the burnt-out second floor and bed-ridden and wheelchair-bound patients being carried out to the hospital's lawn.
“It was pitch black and the heavy smoke was unbearable, it's really horrifying,” a survivor was quoted by the Central News Agency as saying.
The patient said he was lucky to escape the fire as he was able to walk on his own and was later rescued by firefighters.
Tainan mayor Lai Ching-te told reporters that the fire was unusually deadly because the hospital was in a relatively remote area and most of the patients were immobile.
Relatives of the patients rushed to the hospital seeking their whereabouts as health minister Chiu Wen-ta assured the public that the authorities will identify the dead and injured as soon as possible, according to TVBS cable news channel.
Chiu also announced that an island-wide check on fire equipment in all medical facilities will be conducted this week, though there has been no suggestion so far that faulty equipment was to blame for this incident.
A woman complained to reporters that she only learned about the fire on TV since the hospital failed to notify the patients' families, and that she was still unable to locate her relative after several hours.
By afternoon, some relatives had arrived at a local funeral home to identify the bodies of their loved ones as social and charity workers offered support.
The fire also raised concerns in the local media about whether staffing had been sufficient, as there were only six workers on night duty for the 70 patients.
Premier Sean Chen expressed his shock at the incident and sent his condolences to the families of the victims, his office said in a statement.