Survivors, neighbours and relatives of the victims have expressed their anguish and anger after one of the deadliest fires in Taiwan’s history left 46 dead in Kaohsiung city.
The 13-storey building hit by the fire was partly abandoned and in a state of disrepair, meaning those who did live there on cheap rent were largely a mix of vulnerable, elderly, disabled or poor people.
An independent commission was set up on Friday to investigate the conditions at the building as authorities continue to try and establish what caused the huge blaze, which also injured dozens more victims.
Lee Mao-sheng, 61, a resident of the neighbourhood where the fire broke out on Thursday, said his friend Cheng Yong-kang was a wheelchair user and did not make it out of the building.
Mr Lee said he had not seen his friend in a while as the door of the dilapidated building didn’t always open, and the residents did not have the money to get it fixed.
"The people who lived inside, many of them were not in good health. Many of them had a disability," Mr Lee said. He said the main reason it was home to so many vulnerable people was because the rent was cheap.
Search and rescue efforts were paused through the night and resumed on Friday morning. At the scene, prosecutor Hong Ruei-fen told reporters that she would seek to find out the cause of the fire as soon as possible, before she embarked on the daunting task of going into the building.
Outside the now-blackened and destroyed facade of the building, a Taoist priest wearing traditional robes chanted prayers for those who lost their lives in the blaze.
One of the survivors, Tsai Hsiu-chin, 70, who had lived in the building for 15 years, said she managed to escape after hearing someone screaming "fire" at 3am.
"I didn’t bring anything. I just cared about saving my life," she said, sitting opposite the charred building on Thursday night, as she tried to process the incident.
The building had some 120 housing units and a showdown commercial facilities on lower floors, including a closed movie theatre, restaurants and a karaoke bar. Authorities have now erected supporting scaffolding and wire mesh around it to temporarily make it safe for passers-by and traffic.
Several residents blamed the city authorities for allowing the dilapidated building to function in such a condition for years and not conducting timely inspections.
“The government should have already taken the building down. They kept saying they were going to demolish it, but in the end they didn’t do it,” 70-year-old Lin Chieh-ying, who lives opposite the building, told Reuters.
The city’s administration said the inspection officials were not able to access the premises of the building as its doors always remained locked when the officers visited, and officials were unable to coordinate visits with the property owners.
The city’s mayor Chen Chi-mai announced that he had ordered his deputy to set up an independent team to investigate whether negligence contributed to the fire.
He said of the 46 dead, 21 are yet to be identified. Identification work would be carried out with the help of fingerprint analysis on 19 of the victims, but for two others they would have to rely on other methods.
Police suspect that unextinguished sandalwood incense could have caused the fire in the building, according to local broadcaster EBC News. A woman who is suspected to have discarded the burning incense coil in some bins near where small gas canisters were kept along with another man, who discarded a cigarette outside the building, have been taken in for questioning.
Fire extinguishers had been installed last month, but there were only three per floor because the residents could not afford to pay for more, the United Daily News newspaper reported.
This was the second deadliest fire in Taiwan after 1995’s blaze at a nighclub in Taichung, Taiwan’s third-largest city. About 64 people were killed in that incident.
Additional reporting by agencies
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