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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Families blame South Korea officials for deaths in hospital fire

Local regulations did not require hospital to have sprinklers or smoke-control systems

South Korean president Moon Jae-in comforts a relative of a victim of a hospital blaze at a memorial altar for the victims in Miryang, South Korea, on January 27, 2018. Yonhap via Reuters
South Korean president Moon Jae-in comforts a relative of a victim of a hospital blaze at a memorial altar for the victims in Miryang, South Korea, on January 27, 2018. Yonhap via Reuters

Relatives of victims in a South Korean hospital fire voiced anger on Saturday over the lack of safety measures that could have prevented the loss of 37 lives.

The huge blaze that erupted at the hospital in the south-eastern city of Miryang on Friday killed 34 patients — mostly elderly women — and three medical staff.

The six-storey hospital did not have any fire sprinklers or smoke-control systems as it was not large enough to be required to install them under local safety rules. Police believe the fire was caused by an electrical fault in the emergency room on the first floor.

"I would have never sent my mother to this hospital had I known there was no fire sprinkler or smoke-control systems," said a relative of one of the victims who only gave his family name, Kim.

"Of all the places in the world, can you imagine a hospital without fire sprinklers?"

Mr Kim and other relatives gathered on Saturday at a city gymnasium where a memorial altar was set up with portraits and name plaques of the victims surrounded by hundreds of white chrysanthemums.

There were scenes of despair and anger, with relatives sobbing uncontrollably and screaming at government officials who came to pay their respects.

"My mother! Bring my mother back to life!" a young woman cried in front of the altar.

"My poor mother can never come back no matter what you say!" she shouted at visiting officials before collapsing to the floor.

One relative shouted at a group of conservative lawmakers: "Did you guys not oppose reforming the fire code rules? Then why are you here?"

The hospital fire came only a month after 29 people were killed in an inferno at a fitness club in Jecheon, a disaster blamed on insufficient emergency exits, flammable finishing materials and illegally parked cars blocking access for emergency vehicles.

President Moon Jae-in, who visited the altar to console relatives, promised to improve safety regulations after inspecting the gutted hospital.

"I feel so devastated that a disaster like this keeps happening although the government has promised repeatedly to build a safe country," he said.

A middle-aged woman at the memorial blamed herself for her mother's death.

"Her whole body was covered with soot and her face was burnt … it's all my fault. I took her there for a medical check-up," she said

Miryang resident Kang Eun-soo said his 88-year-old sister died in the fire while her two children, who were visiting her, escaped from the burning building but were in critical condition.

"My niece jumped off the window from the third floor, seriously injuring her back, and the nephew inhaled too much smoke," he said.

"My sister spent her whole life to raise her seven children … we can't let her go like this, not like this," he said, wiping away tears.

The tragedy has rattled residents of the sleepy city of Miryang.

Black banners with a message of mourning were hung along the main streets.

A shortage of space at funeral homes forced many relatives to take the bodies of their loved ones to nearby cities.

"I don't even know where to take my mother's body for a funeral," one relative said.

A stream of mourners visited the altar, from teenagers and uniformed troops to monks and parents who brought their children.

"This is a close-knit community where practically everybody knows everybody else, and everybody is like brothers and sisters," said local businessman Woo Moon-hwan after paying his respects.

The "heartbreaking" tragedy had deeply rattled him, the 59-year-old said.

"Who knows? Something like this could happen to me one day."

Military veteran Son Do-soo, 71, said the disaster was a by-product of a "national mindset" that neglected safety in the pursuit of rapid economic growth.

"The decades-long social customs that ignore safety really should change," he said.