TAIPEI, Taiwan – At least 46 people were killed and dozens more injured after a fire broke out early Thursday at a large commercial and residential building in southern Taiwan that had deteriorated in recent years, according to local officials and news reports.
At least 41 other people were treated for injuries, local fire officials said in Kaohsiung, the main port city in Taiwan where the blaze took place. The cause of the fire is still 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 show dazed and soot-covered elderly residents being escorted out of the charred building, some on stretchers.
The fire brigade received the first cry for help around 3 a.m. on Thursday and had the fire extinguished about four hours later. By noon, they were still searching for survivors in the 13-story building. The building was inhabited by about 120 families, mostly low-income and elderly residents who lived between the seventh and eleventh floors.
“It was a blaze,” 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 am, and he went out into the street to see what was going on. He said the flames had moved quickly from the ground floor to the upper floors. He added that he was concerned that some of the elderly residents who lived on the higher floors would have a hard time evacuating after dark.
“They may not have had enough time to get out,” he said.
Built in the 1980s, the 13-story building is located near the Love River in central Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s third largest city. According to local reports, conditions in the once prosperous building began to deteriorate after a fire broke out in the building in 1999. Although no one died in that fire, the building was partially abandoned and squatters and gamblers began to take up residence. Among the local residents, it became known as “Kaohsiung’s No. 1 Ghost Building.”
Recent photos and videos showed alarming security conditions inside the building, including exposed power lines, corroded water pipes and mounds of debris blocking dark stairwells.
According to Apple Daily, a local news outlet, several developers have tried to take over and renovate the building in recent years. But those efforts were met with resistance from the building’s residents.
Lin Chin-rong, the deputy mayor of Kaohsiung, said the building has been inspected by police and firefighters four times since 2019. He said an inspection notice had not been placed on the building until Tuesday, but a barrier had been put in place to prevent firefighters from getting to the higher floors.
He said local fire officials and government construction workers had been in contact with the building’s self-proclaimed representatives in the days before the fire broke out.