by HUIZHONG WU
Kaohsiung, Taiwan (AP) – At least 46 people were killed and 41 injured after a fire broke out early Thursday morning in a decades-old mixed commercial and residential building in the Taiwanese port city of Kaohsiung, officials said.
Neighborhood residents said the 13-storey building was home to many poor, elderly and disabled people, and it was unclear how many housing units there were.
Witnesses said they heard something that sounded like an explosion at around 3 a.m. when the fire broke out in the lower floors of the building, which housed a closed cinema, abandoned restaurants and karaoke clubs.
Lin Zhi-ying said that in her home across from the fire she woke up to the sounds of ambulances and fire engines.
“I thought our house was going to burn, too,” she said.
The apartment building is one of many in Yancheng District, an older part of Kaohsiung City of about 2.8 million people in southwest Taiwan.
“For the Yancheng families, I feel incomparable pain and I blame myself deeply,” city mayor Chen Chi-mai told a news conference. “Here I would like to express my deepest sorrow to all the wounded and deceased, as well as their families and all residents.”
It took firefighters until 7 a.m. to put out the flames. It seemed that many of the upper floors were not directly damaged.
Late in the day, the smell of smoke was still present throughout the area and the sound of flying glass. Construction workers were lifted on a crane to break the remaining glass from the window frames with a crowbar to remove further hazards.
Throughout Thursday, first responders rummaged through the wreckage and recovered dozens of bodies. Of the 55 people who were initially hospitalized on arrival or shortly thereafter, 14 were confirmed dead.
Officials said the age of the building and piles of rubble blocking access to many areas have complicated search and rescue efforts, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported.
The fire apparently broke out on the ground floor, but it was not immediately clear where and the cause is still under investigation.
The United Daily News said investigators were focusing on the first-floor cafe where the fire broke out, and police were looking at a resident who was said to have quarreled with his girlfriend earlier on Wednesday. The newspaper said they did not rule out arson.
The United Daily News, a major newspaper, reported that fire extinguishers were installed last month, but only three per floor because residents could not pay more.
A 1995 fire in a nightclub in Taichung, Taiwan’s third largest city, killed 64 people in the country’s deadliest disaster in recent times.