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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Dozens of patients killed in South Korea hospital fire

Most of the victims died of smoke inhalation from fire that broke out in the emergency room of Sejong Hospital in Miryang

A fire at a South Korean hospital killed at least 37 people, mainly from suffocation, on Friday morning and injured more than 100 others in one of the country's deadliest blazes in years.

The dead included three hospital staff and several people in an intensive-care unit for respiratory illnesses.

The fire started in the emergency room of Sejong Hospital in the south-eastern city of Miryang and had engulfed the first floor when firefighters arrived. They entered the building through windows on the second floor to rescue trapped patients, said Choi Man-wu, a fire official.

He said smoke could have spread quickly through the building's staircase at the centre, but the flames were extinguished before reaching the third floor. The cause of the fire was not immediately known. The hospital's operations were suspended after the fire.

All the dead were from the hospital's general ward, while all 94 people being cared for in a nursing ward for the elderly were safely evacuated after the fire, some carried on the backs of firefighters, Mr Choi said.

Ten of the injured are in critical condition, local medical official Cheon Jae-kyung said in the same televised briefing. Fire officials said 131 were injured, 18 of them in serious condition.

Most of the dead had been hospitalised for respiratory diseases in an intensive-care unit on the second floor. Two doctors and nine nurses were working in the emergency room at the time of fire.

Three of the dead worked at the hospital — a doctor who worked in the emergency room and a nurse and nurse assistant on the second floor, said Son Kyung-cheol, head of the foundation that operates the hospital.

Mr Son said in a televised briefing that the hospital did not have sprinklers as it was not required by law.

Most of the 39 deaths appeared to be due to suffocation, with only one suffering burns, said an official at the National Fire Agency. The identification of the dead was under way.

Videos from local TV networks showed black smoke billowing out of the building and engulfing its entire facade. A rescuer carried on his back an elderly patient covered in a blanket as they escaped the nursing ward.

President Moon Jae-in expressed regret over the blaze at an emergency meeting convened with his senior advisers. He ordered officials to provide necessary medical supports to those rescued, find the exact cause of the fire and work out measures to prevent future fires, according to his spokesman Park Su-hyun.

South Korea is one of the fastest-aging countries in the world and has many nursing hospitals, which are preferred for elderly people who need long-term medical care.

Several recent fires in South Korea have been deadly.

In late December, 29 people were killed in a building fire in central Seoul, which was the country's deadliest blaze over the past decade before the hospital fire. Last weekend, a fire at a Seoul motel killed six people, and police arrested a man who allegedly set it ablaze in anger because he had been denied a room for being heavily drunk.

In 2014, a fire set by an 81-year-old dementia patient killed 21 at another hospital for the elderly.