By Christine Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - A fire in a South Korean hospital that did not have a sprinkler system killed at least 37 people and injured more than 70 others on Friday, officials said, the latest tragedy to raise concerns over the country's safety standards.
Many patients "walked though fire and smoke" to escape the blaze at the Sejong Hospital, in the southern city of Miryang, as the main exit was on the first floor which was ablaze, a city official told Reuters.
Other patients used ladders and plastic escape slides to flee upper floors, while firefighters carried patients who could not walk.
The fire is the deadliest in South Korea in at least a decade and follows a fire last month which killed 29 people in a high rise sports center.
The presidential Blue House initially said the fire killed at least 41, but then deferred to the city's fire chief who put the death toll at 37.
A list posted by fire officials outside the hospital identified at least 26 of the victims by name. With ages ranging from 35 to 96 years, at least 20 of the victims were over 70 years of age.
On a wall at a funeral home next to the hospital, officials had scrawled a handwritten list of names and hospital rooms as family members crowded around to look.
The fire started at around 7.30 a.m. (2230 GMT) at the rear of the emergency room on the first floor of the hospital, Choi Man-woo, the head of Miryang city's fire station, told a televised media briefing. With a population of around 108,000, Miryang is about 270 km (170 miles) southeast of Seoul.
Television news footage showed a huge pall of black smoke billowing from the windows and entrance to the hospital and flames flickering.
At least 177 patients - most of them elderly - were at the hospital and an adjacent nursing home when the fire broke out, hospital director Song Byeong-cheol said at a press briefing.
Song said at least one doctor, a nurse, and a nurse's aide were killed on the second floor.
Most of those who died were on the first and second floors, said Choi, adding there were no deaths from burns.
By Friday afternoon the burnt out hospital was ringed by police as forensic investigators combed the smoke-blackened building. Charred debris and shattered glass littered the ground outside.
NO SPRINKLER SYSTEM
Song said the hospital did not have a sprinkler system and was not large enough to require one under South Korean law.
That was due to change this year under a new law, however, and hospitals in the country had until the end of June to install a sprinkler system to comply with new regulations, Choi told Reuters. He said he did not know if the hospital had been planning to install a system.
Officials said they were still investigating the cause, but are looking closely at a possible short circuit in the emergency room's heating and cooling system.
Song said the hospital had regular safety inspections.
South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy and one of the world's fastest ageing populations, has faced criticism in recent years over inadequate safety standards.
President Moon Jae-in convened an emergency meeting with top aides and called on the government to take "all necessary measures" to help survivors.
Interior minister Kim Boo-kyum traveled to Miryang to apologize for the fire. He promised the government would do its best in helping the victims, Yonhap reported.
A number of South Korean lawmakers also visited survivors, and toured the scene.
In December, 29 people were killed in a blaze at an eight-storey fitness center in Jecheon City.
Most of the victims of that fire were women trapped in a sauna by toxic fumes, sparking anger at reports of shoddy construction, broken doors, blocked exits and other problems that may have contributed to the deaths.
A 2014 fire at a rural South Korean hospital for chronically ill elderly patients killed 21 people. And in 2008 a warehouse fire outside Seoul left 40 people dead.
(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting Yuna Park; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Paul Tait and Michael Perry)