Fire in South Korea hospice for elderly kills 21

Only nurse on duty, who was reportedly caring for 70 patients, said to be among the dead in blaze — the latest in series of deadly accidents following Sewol ferry disaster

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 9:22am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 9:45am

A fire tore through a hospice for the elderly in South Korea early on Wednesday, killing 21 people – the latest in a series of deadly accidents following last month’s ferry disaster that claimed around 300 lives.

“We have recovered 21 bodies and seven people were injured, some of them in a serious condition,” said a fire department official from Jangseong County, about 300km south of Seoul.

Although the fire was brought under control within 30 minutes, the official said many elderly patients on the second floor of the hospice were bedridden and unable to escape in time.

“Most of them died as the result of smoke inhalation,” he said.

Television reports cited local officials as saying only one nurse was on duty, caring for more than 70 people – including stroke victims and patients with Alzheimer’s.

The nurse was also reportedly killed in the blaze.

The fact that most of the victims were sick and elderly will fuel debate about lax safety standards for vulnerable people following the Sewol ferry tragedy in which most of the victims were schoolchildren.

Seven people were injured in the hospice – with six in a critical condition, prompting fears the toll could rise.

It was the second deadly blaze in South Korea in two days after seven people were killed and 41 injured in a fire at a bus terminal near Seoul on Monday.

That fire was believed to have been sparked by welding work at an underground restaurant.

The country is still reeling from the sinking of the Sewol ferry on April 16.

The loss of so many young lives triggered a bout of intense soul-searching in a country that had, until now, taken enormous pride in its extraordinarily rapid transformation from a war-torn, impoverished backwater to Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Investigations into the ferry disaster have suggested it was almost wholly man-made: the result of cut corners, regulatory violations, poor safety training and a woeful lack of oversight – all, or nearly all, attributable to a desire to maximise profits.

Families of the victims have criticised nearly every aspect of the government’s handling of the disaster, with some taking their protests to the doors of the presidential Blue House in Seoul.

In an address to the nation last week, President Park Geun-hye tearfully accepted responsibility for the disaster and vowed to improve safety standards.

She also promised harsh penalties for those found guilty of criminal negligence in the wake of fatal accidents.

The hospice fire will be investigated to determine whether the building met structural safety standards and whether staffing levels were adequate.