TAIPEI — Taiwan on Friday faced the aftermath of a massive fire that gutted a building in the southern city of Kaohsiung, killing 46 people and injuring dozens in the island’s deadliest blaze in decades.
The inferno broke out in the 13-story, mixed-use building in Thursday’s pre-dawn hours, according to officials, raging through multiple floors before firefighters finally got it under control.
During the peak of the fire, the entire building was engulfed in flames, pictures published by Taiwan’s official Central News Agency (CNA) showed.
Smoke billowed out of the edifice’s windows as firefighters desperately tried to douse the flames using extendable hoses, the photographs showed.
Responders also used aerial work platforms to conduct search and rescue operations for residents, many of whom reportedly were elderly or had dementia or physical disabilities.
Kaohsiung’s fire department said it sent more than 70 trucks to tackle the blaze, which took four hours to put out.
As daylight broke, the sheer scale of the devastation became clear, with every floor of the building visibly blackened and most of its windows shattered.
The fire department said the blaze “caused 41 injuries and 46 deaths”, with officials adding that most of the fatalities occurred on floors seven to 11, which housed residential apartments and were consumed by smoke.
The first five floors were for commercial use but were unoccupied.
Residents reported hearing a number of loud noises when the fire first broke out on the lower floors.
“I heard many loud bangs — ‘bang, bang, bang’ — on the ground floor and came down to investigate,” an unidentified man who lived in the building told Formosa TV.
“That’s when I realized there was a fire and called the police,” he added.
An unnamed female survivor, describing the scene on her floor, said: “When I opened the door to get out, the hallway was full of black smoke.”
As night fell on Thursday, police announced emergency services had finished searching the building with no further casualties found.
A constable at the Kaohsiung police department told AFP the building was 40 years old and mostly occupied by low-income residents.
Survivors had estimated about 100 people lived in the apartment block, the constable added, giving only his surname Liu.
Officials had not yet ruled out arson, he added.
Kaohsiung Fire Bureau chief Lee Ching-hsiu said most residents were in bed when the blaze began, and that many who lived in the building were senior citizens who suffered from dementia or physical disabilities, according to CNA.
Kaohsiung’s mayor reportedly said a task force would be set up to study the city’s management of the building and other aging structures.
The fire appears to be Taiwan’s deadliest in years. The last fire of a similar magnitude was in 1995 when 64 people perished inside a packed karaoke club.
As an island frequently battered by earthquakes and typhoons, Taiwan has strict building codes and a generally good safety record.
But there is often a gap between what the rules state and how safety standards are applied, especially in older buildings.
Some of the highest death tolls in recent earthquakes have come when older buildings have collapsed, with subsequent investigations occasionally showing their designs were not up to code.