The fire started in the 13-storey commercial and residential building at 2:54 a.m. local time (2:54 p.m. ET) in Yancheng District, Kaohsiung City, according to Taiwan’s official Central News Agency.
A spokesman with the Kaohsiung City Fire Bureau told CNN that rescue operations were still underway, with more than 377 rescuers deployed to the site. He said at least 41 people were injured.
Initially, the authorities put the death toll at seven, but city fire chief Lee Ching-hsiu warned to expect more casualties because some people may still be trapped in the residential part of the building, between the seventh and eleventh floors.
A total of 139 fire engines and ambulances were deployed at the scene and the fire was extinguished by 7:17 a.m. (7:17 p.m. ET), according to the Central News Agency. By midday, at least 62 people between the ages of 8 and 83 had been rescued.
More than 100 residents, many of them elderly people with physical disabilities, live in the building, according to the Cyprus News Agency.
The Central News Agency said the cause of the fire was not clear. Local police are reviewing the surveillance footage and said they cannot rule out human factors, according to the report.
Li told the Cyprus News Agency that the number of casualties is high due to a combination of factors: The fire happened overnight. The majority of the population is elderly; The stairs were full of debris. Building materials did not meet fire safety standards.
Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chi-mai apologized at an evening press conference.
He explained that the first six floors of the building were constructed for commercial use, and the seventh floor and above for housing.
While there were no longer any businesses on the first six floors, there were a number of flammable items there. Chen said that this was one of the main reasons for the heavy loss of life.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen expressed her “deepest condolences” to the victims of the fire in a Facebook post.
Tsai promised that her government would “spare maximum efforts” to rescue those trapped, resettle fire-affected residents, and provide needed assistance to victims’ families.
“In the face of this serious incident, we extend our deepest condolences to the victims and wish a speedy recovery to the injured,” she wrote Thursday afternoon local time.