A fire at a hospital that doubled as a nursing home killed at least 41 people Friday in the southern city of Miryang, the latest in a string of tragedies that have heightened public concern over the country’s safety standards.
Officials said they were still investigating the cause of the fire, which engulfed Sejong Hospital with flames and thick smoke. The fire, they said, erupted in the hospital’s main building.
Firefighters and hospital workers evacuated patients from an annex that operated as a nursing home, carrying some of them on their backs.
Fire officials said more than 70 people were injured, a number of them seriously.
President Moon Jae-in convened an emergency staff meeting in response to the fire. Shortly after the blaze was reported, the country’s prime minister, Lee Nak-yon ordered his government to send “all available equipment and personnel” to Miryang.
At least 100 patients were believed to have been in the main hospital building, and 94 in the nursing home annex. The identities of those who died were not immediately known.
In South Korea, a country with one of the world’s fastest-aging populations, the lack of safety measures at its growing number of nursing homes has become a major issue in recent years.
The concern was crystallized by the deaths in 2014 of 20 nursing home patients who had dementia or stroke complications. Many died of smoke inhalation because they could not move on their own when the fire erupted.
The fire in Miryang, about 170 miles southeast of Seoul, was the second major deadly fire in South Korea in recent weeks. Twenty-nine people were killed and 40 injured in a fire that gutted a sports center in Jecheon, about 75 miles southeast of Seoul, in December. Most of the victims in that fire had become trapped in a public sauna on the second floor of the building.
The deadly fires hit the country as South Koreans remain traumatized over the sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014, which killed more than 300 people, most of them teenagers on a school trip.
The series of accidents, including the fires, has eroded confidence in the quality of the country’s public safety standards. Moon, who took office in May, has vowed to make the country’s institutions safer, and later Friday morning he pledged to take action in the wake of the fire.
In a statement, the president “expressed deep regrets” over the loss of life and ordered his government to launch a thorough investigation and take measures to prevent similar fires. Moon also called for quick medical support for those evacuated from the Miryang hospital.