A fire at a hospital annex housing elderly patients in the south-western county of Jangseong killed 21 people early on Wednesday, South Korean officials said.
Twenty patients and a nurse died at the hospital, which specialises in elderly patients who suffer from dementia and palsy, and seven others were injured, officials with the Jangseong Fire Department said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The victims died after suffocating on poisonous gas, officials said.
"We have recovered 21 bodies and seven people were injured, some of them in a serious condition," a fire department official told AFP from Jangseong County, about 190 miles (300 kilometres) south of Seoul.
Although the fire was brought under control within 30 minutes, the official said many elderly patients on the second floor of the hospice were bedridden and unable to escape in time.
"Most of them died as the result of smoke inhalation," he said.
TV reports cited local officials as saying only one nurse was on duty caring for more than 70 people – including stroke victims and patients with Alzheimer's.
Some of the dead had their hands bound to their beds, and the second-floor windows were barred, Yonhap news agency reported, without citing any sources for the information. Emergency officials couldn’t immediately confirm the report.
Two hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AP that patients are not bound to beds. But they said they were checking into the details of what happened.
Latest in string of disasters
The fire comes as South Korea debates long-ignored safety lapses and a history of corner-cutting in a country that rapidly rose from poverty and the destruction of the 1950-53 Korean War to become Asia’s fourth biggest economy.
Officials are still searching for more than a dozen bodies from a ferry disaster last month that left more than 300 people dead or missing, most of them high school students. South Korea has also had two subway accidents in recent weeks. And a fire earlier this week at a bus terminal near Seoul killed eight people and injured 57.
The fire was believed to have been sparked by welding work at an underground restaurant.
The hospice fire will be investigated to determine whether the building met structural safety standards and whether staffing levels were adequate.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)
Date created : 2014-05-28