A huge fire tore through a South Korean hospital on Friday killing at least 37 people, the government said, in the country\’s worst blaze for a decade.
Around 130 others were hurt in the fire, which comes just weeks before thousands of athletes and foreign visitors are expected in the country for the Winter Olympics.
While South Korea has risen to become the world\’s 11th-largest economy, some of its infrastructure was built rapidly and it has a history of preventable disasters.
It was the country\’s second major blaze in a month, and officials admitted there was no sprinkler system installed at the hospital.
Videos posted on social media showed a patient hanging on to a rope dangling from a helicopter above the hospital in Miryang, in the far south, and another crawling out of a window to climb down a ladder.
The death toll rose rapidly throughout the morning as some of those initially pulled from the blaze succumbed to their injuries. At one point the presidential Blue House put it at 41, before authorities lowered it to 37, blaming double-counting.
Three of the dead were medical staff, officials said.
"Two nurses said they had seen fire suddenly erupting in the emergency room," said fire chief Choi Man-Woo.
The six-storey structure housed a nursing home as well as the Sejong Hospital, and around 200 people were inside when the fire broke out according to police.
All the dead were in the hospital, Choi said.
Video footage and pictures showed the building engulfed by thick, dark smoke and surrounded by multiple fire trucks.
Survivors were brought out wrapped in blankets, and firefighters picked their way through the blackened shell of the building after the blaze was extinguished.
Jang Yeong-Jae, a surviving patient, said he was on the second floor when nurses screamed "Fire!" in the hallway and urged people to leave through the 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 Seoul\’s major daily JoongAng Ilbo.
"Everybody was running around in panic, falling over and screaming as smoke filled the rooms," he was quoted as saying. Jang tore open window screens and escaped on a ladder erected by firefighters.
"There were so many aged patients on other floors… I wonder if they escaped safely," JoongAng quoted Jang\’s wife as saying.
Witnesses described frantic efforts by medical staff to evacuate patients, many of them elderly or immobile.
"Nurses were running around barefoot shouting \’Fire! Everyone get out!\’ without even knowing their shoes had come off, while tearfully saying some of their colleagues were still inside," said one witness who only revealed her surname, Chung.
"It was so horrifying… I saw bodies of elderly ladies lying on the floor because there were not enough blankets left to cover them," Chung told AFP.
– Short-circuits suspected –
Hospital director Son Gyeong-Cheol admitted there was no sprinkler system in the building.
None had been required under fire prevention laws, he told journalists, but the hospital had been planning to install them in the coming week to comply with new regulations coming into force in June.
"There were two heating-cooling air conditioners in the emergency room and the fire started in that area," he said. "We suspect electrical short-circuits."
Miryang Fire Station chief Choi Man-Woo apologised for "failing to rescue each and every one" of the patients caught in the fire.
"When our fast reaction squad arrived at the scene, the building was already engulfed in thick smoke and flames and they were unable to make their way into it," Choi said.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In called an emergency meeting with advisers, and demanded an immediate probe into the cause of the blaze.
Pope Francis said he was "deeply saddened" by the deaths and injuries from the fire, in a condolence message to South Korea, which has a fast-growing Catholic community.
The fire came only a month after 29 people were killed in an inferno at a fitness club in the South Korean city of Jecheon — a disaster blamed on insufficient emergency exits, flammable finishing materials and illegally parked cars blocking access to emergency vehicles.
Friday\’s fire is South Korea\’s worst since 2008, when a blaze at a warehouse in the city of Icheon killed 40 workers.
The worst fire ever in modern South Korea was an arson attack on a subway station in the southeastern city of Daegu in 2003 that left 192 people dead and nearly 150 injured.