‘It Was a Sea of Flames’: At Least 46 Killed in Taiwan Apartment Fire

TAIPEI, Taiwan — It was known among locals as the city’s “No. 1 ghost building” — a once-prosperous property that began to deteriorate badly after a fire two decades ago. Squatters and gamblers moved in. Piles of debris blocked stairwells.

Early on Thursday, a fire tore through the 13-story building in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s main port city, killing at least 46 people and injuring dozens. The blaze, Taiwan’s deadliest in decades, underscored concerns about the island’s lax safety standards.

At least 41 other people were being treated for injuries, local fire officials said. The cause of the fire was under investigation, said Lee Ching-hsiu, the city’s fire chief.

Surveillance footage from a neighboring building showed a flash of light on the first floor, and soon the entire floor was engulfed in flames, according to local news reports. Photos and videos circulating online showed dazed and soot-covered older residents being escorted out of the charred building, some on stretchers.

Firefighters received the first calls for help around 3 a.m. on Thursday and extinguished the blaze about four hours later. By the afternoon, they were still looking for survivors in the building, which was inhabited by about 120 families, mostly low-income and older residents living between the seventh and 11th floors.

“It was a sea of flames,” Lin Chuan-fu, 57, a Kaohsiung resident who lives near the building, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Lin said a loud explosion woke him up around 3 a.m., and he went into the street to see what was happening. He said the flames had moved quickly from the ground floor to the higher floors. He added that he was worried that some of the older residents living on the higher floors would have had a hard time evacuating in the dark.

“They might not have had enough time to get out,” he said.

Built in the 1980s, the commercial and residential building near the Love River in central Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s third-biggest city, once hummed with restaurants, karaoke lounges and a movie theater. But conditions in the building began to deteriorate after a fire broke out there in 1999, according to local reports. While no one died in that fire, the building was partly abandoned.

Recent photos and videos showed what appeared to be alarming safety conditions inside the building, including exposed electricity cables, corroded water pipes and heaps of detritus obstructing dark stairwells.

Several developers tried to take over and renovate the building in recent years, according to Apple Daily, a local news outlet. But those efforts met with resistance from the building’s residents.

Taiwan has a spotty record when it comes to fire safety. The tragedy on Thursday was Taiwan’s deadliest building fire since 1995, when a blaze broke out in a karaoke club in the central city of Taichung, killing 64 people. That fire was the deadliest in a string of major blazes that occurred in Taiwan around the time, and led some to raise questions about whether the self-governing island, in its push to democratize and grow economically, had overlooked basic safety concerns in the rush to develop.

In 2018, an explosion at an oil refinery in northern Taiwan set off a fire that took hours to extinguish. In July, four people who had been under mandatory coronavirus quarantine at a hotel in central Taiwan died after they had been told to stay in their rooms even after the alarm sounded. The hotel had been inspected by fire officials just two months before.

Lin Chin-rong, the deputy mayor of Kaohsiung, said the building had been inspected by the police and fire officials four times since 2019. He said that an inspection notice had been posted on the building as recently as Tuesday, but that a barrier had prevented fire officials from going to the higher floors.

He added that local fire officials and government construction workers had been in touch with the building’s self-appointed representatives in the days before the fire broke out.

“It is very unfortunate that such a bad thing happened before the improvements could be completed,” Mr. Lin said.

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