KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — At least 46 people were killed and another 41 injured after a fire broke out early Thursday in a run-down mixed commercial and residential building in the Taiwanese port city of Kaohsiung, officials said.
Neighborhood residents said the 13-story building was home to many poor, elderly and disabled people and it wasn’t clear how many of the 120 units were occupied.
Witnesses said they heard something that sounded like an explosion at about 3 a.m. when the blaze erupted in the building’s lower floors, which housed a closed movie theater, abandoned restaurants and karaoke clubs.
Tsai Hsiu-Chin, 70, had lived in the building for 15 years. After hearing someone scream “fire,” she said that she ran down the elevator and escaped with only her clothes.
“I didn’t bring anything. She said that she only cared about saving her life.
Across the street, Lin Chie-ying said she was awoken in her home by the sound of ambulances and fire trucks. She said, “I was afraid that our house would also burn.”
It took firefighters until after 7 a.m. to extinguish the blaze. It appeared that many of the higher floors were not directly damaged. The smoke from the fire was strong enough to cause serious injuries and death for the many people living around it.
Throughout Thursday, first responders pored through the wreckage and recovered dozens of bodies. Another 14 of 55 taken initially to the hospital were confirmed dead on arrival or shortly after.
The building’s age and piles of debris blocking access to many areas complicated search and rescue efforts, officials said, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.
Later in the day, the smell of smoke still lingered and the sound of shattering glass rang throughout the area. To remove the glass remaining from the window frames, construction workers used a crane and then waited for scaffolding to be put up to keep the area safe.
Scattered crowds of people gathered across the street. On their scooters, curious onlookers walked by the scene and stopped to take in the destruction.
The decades-old apartment building is one of many in the Yancheng district, an older part of Kaohsiung, a city of some 2.8 million people in southwestern Taiwan.
“For the families and Yancheng, I feel incomparable pain and I blame myself deeply,” Mayor Chen Chi Mai said at a news conference, bowing in apology. “Here I want to express my deepest sorrow to all the wounded and those who died, as well as their families and all the residents.”
It appears the fire broke out on the ground floor but it was not immediately clear exactly where and the cause was still under investigation.
The United Daily News said that investigators were focusing on a first-floor tea shop where the fire had started, and police were looking into a resident who reportedly fought with his girlfriend earlier on Wednesday. According to the newspaper, they had not yet ruled out arson.
Fire extinguishers had been installed last month, but only three per floor because the residents could not afford to pay more, the United Daily News, a major newspaper, reported.
A 1995 fire at a nightclub in Taichung, Taiwan’s third-largest city, killed 64 people in the country’s deadliest such disaster in recent times.