Blaze at hospital kills 21 infirm seniors, injures 8
Police said the fire was probably started by one of the patients, an 81-year-old man with mental problems.
The blaze began at around 12:25 a.m. yesterday in a storage room on the second floor of a three-story annex of a long-term chronic care hospital in Jangseong County, South Jeolla, where many elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other chronic diseases lived.
Six of the eight injured were in critical condition, police said.
Police said all of the 21 dead, including an auxiliary nurse, were on the second floor, where a total of 34 patients and the nurse lived. All 44 people on the annex’s first floor were evacuated.
The fire was reported by a nurse in the main building at 12:27 a.m. The 119 rescue squad arrived at the scene in four minutes, officials said. They put out the blaze in around two minutes.
The rescue workers said most of the victims died of smoke inhalation.
“There were some beds, blankets and mattresses in the room and they released a lot of toxic gases when burning,” a firefighter told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Although the blaze barely spread to the corridor, the smoke moved through the other rooms.”
“The blaze was not that big,” Lee Min-ho, head of the Damyang Fire Fighters’ Office, said at a press meeting yesterday. “They died of suffocating on the gas as there was a lot of smoke.”
“He is denying his charges, but we are focusing on the possibility of arson,” Roh Gyu-ho, head of the Jangseong County Police Station, said at a briefing. “At 12:06 a.m., he was photographed leaving his room and he entered a toilet at 12:08 a.m., and then the storage room at 12:16 a.m. When he entered the storage room, he brought something like a blanket. Police obtained a discarded lighter from the scene.”
The suspect was admitted to the hospital May 1 with cerebral problems, police said. Whether he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease or a cerebral infarction was not confirmed.
According to the police, a total of 324 patients were housed in the hospital’s main building and annex. But there was only one oriental medicine doctor, two nurses and nine auxiliary nurses. In the annex there was only one nurse and one auxiliary nurse when the fire broke out. There was only an auxiliary nurse working on the second floor, police said.
Under current regulations, there should have been at least two doctors and four nurses at a hospital with more than 200 senior patients. There should have been one assistant on every floor other than a nurse taking care of patients, but there was no such assistant in the annex.
Five of the 35 patients on the annex’s second floor were bedridden and 25 were suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Five had other chronic diseases, police said. Nineteen of the dead and injured people were in their 70s or 80s.
Some relatives of the victims are criticizing the management of the hospital and argue that some patients were tied to their beds or locked in their rooms.
“There was an emergency exit near the elevator, but you had to first pass through an automatic glass door to get to it,” said Kim Do-hyeon, whose father died in the fire. His father was in the hospital for alcoholism.
“That door is only opened by nurses to keep patients from getting out. It’s a lie that some of the patients couldn’t get out by themselves. Most of them could walk by themselves.”
Relatives also claim they have photos of the bodies with the scars from being tied with ropes and evidence they were over-tranquilized. But they did not release the evidence to reporters.
The first responders denied those allegations.
“Media reports that some patients were tied to their beds by their wrists were not true,” Lee, head of the Damyang Fire Fighters’ Office, said at a briefing. “Rescuers reported to me that they didn’t cut ropes off any patients.”
Authorities said they did not find a sprinkler system in the building. Newly revised regulations by the Ministry of Health and Welfare exempt small hospitals and private hospitals for seniors from the requirement to be equipped with sprinklers.
Founded in 2007, the hospital is authorized by the Health Ministry as a specialized facility for elderly patients suffering long-term chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease or strokes, with 53 rooms and 397 beds.
Most of the patients were in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The home has a total of 127 staff.
BY KIM HEE-JIN [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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