Taiwanese officials established Friday an independent commission to examine the conditions in a building that was badly maintained in Kaohsiung, where 46 people were killed by a fire. Authorities also searched the rubble for clues.
Reporters at the scene were told by Hong Rueifen, the prosecutor, that she would investigate the cause of Thursday night’s fire and then put on a hard hat before entering the cordoned off building the next morning.
A Taoist priest dressed in traditional robes sang a prayer outside for the victims of the fire, which occurred on the 13th floor.
According to the city administration, the building was required to comply with fire codes and submit for inspections. However, inspectors were not able to gain access to the premises because they could not coordinate visits with property owners and the doors were always locked.
Mayor Chen Chi-mai stated that he had directed his deputy to form an independent team to examine whether negligence contributed to the tragedy. Another 41 people were also injured in the fire.
Chen stated that 21 of the 46 deceased were still unidentified. Chen stated that experts had hoped to use fingerprint analysis in order to identify the 19 other dead, but they would need to use other methods for two other victims.
There were commercial facilities on the lower floors and restaurants, a movie theatre and a karaoke-bar — all closed — as well as 120 housing units.
Witnesses reported hearing an explosion-like sound and that the fire started in the lower part of the area around 3:00 a.m. on Thursday. The fire was extinguished by firefighters only after 7 a.m.
Local media reports that police are questioning a female resident in the building for allegedly leaving a burning incense stick in a trashcan inside her apartment. She also had small gas canisters stored in the same place. Reports said that police were investigating the possible ignition of an electrical fire and a man who discarded a cigarette in front of the building.
Neighborhood residents claim that the building housed many elderly, disabled, and poor people. Many seem to have been locked in their apartments.
Lee Mao-sheng (61), who lives across from Cheng Yong kang, claimed that Cheng Yong kang died in a fire because he used a wheelchair.
Lee stated that they used to play mahjong together in the past. However, he said he hadn’t seen him in a while due to the fact that the elevator door was frequently locked and residents didn’t have enough money to maintain it.
“Many of the people who lived in this building were not in great health. Lee stated that many of them were disabled. He said that the reason most people lived in less than ideal conditions was because of cheap rent.
Friday morning saw the construction closed off with a wire mesh fence and scaffolding. The street was then reopened to traffic. Although the building was not in immediate danger, its lower floors were darkened and smoke was visible on the exteriors of its upper apartments.
Tsai-Hsiuchin, 70, had lived in the same building for 15 year and said that she ran away with only the clothes on her back, after hearing “fire” screamed at 3:00 a.m.
“I didn’t bring anything. She said that she only cared about saving her life.
According to Taiwan’s Central News Agency, the building’s age, and the piles of debris that blocked access to many areas, complicated rescue and search efforts.
This apartment building, which dates back decades, is located in Yancheng, an older area of Kaohsiung with a population of approximately 2.8 million in southwest Taiwan.
According to the United Daily News, there were only three fire extinguishers installed on each floor last month because residents couldn’t afford more.
64 people were killed in a 1995 fire in Taichung’s nightclub, Taiwan’s third largest city. It was the country’s worst natural disaster.