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South Korea agonises over latest tragedy as it probes hospital blaze

Flames and toxic smoke swept through the Sejong Hospital in the southern city of Miryang on Friday, injuring more than 150.

FILE: Heavy grey smoke rises into the air from a fire at a hospital building in Miryang on 26 January 2018. Picture: AFP.

SEOUL - South Korean officials rushed to identify 37 victims of a hospital fire and pinpoint the cause of the worst blaze in years on Saturday as opposition politicians blamed the president for failing to avoid the latest in a series of tragedies.

Flames and toxic smoke swept through the Sejong Hospital in the southern city of Miryang on Friday, injuring more than 150, just weeks after a fire killed 29 people at a fitness centre. All the hospital victims died from smoke inhalation.

City vice mayor Lee Byung-hee said the cause of Friday’s blaze was under investigation.

“We are trying to comprehensively manage (the blaze fallout), including supporting what would be needed for funerals etc,” Lee said in a televised briefing.

The government of Asia’s fourth-largest economy, with one of the world’s fastest ageing populations, has faced criticism in recent years over poor safety standards, including the Sewol ferry disaster of 2014 in which more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, drowned.

Hospital director Song Byeong-cheol said the six-storey hospital did not have a sprinkler system and was not large enough to require one under the law.

The opposition Liberal Party were quick to condemn President Moon Jae-in.

“The Moon Jae-in administration should have at least kept South Koreans safe, to justify the launch of this government,” the party said in a statement, demanding a “master plan” to protect citizens.

Moon’s ruling Democratic Party said it would support the investigation and “embark on parliamentary discussions to legally support and protect citizens lives and safety”, a spokesman said.

Many survivors “walked through fire and smoke” to escape, a city official told Reuters on Friday.

Those on upper floors used fire engine ladders and plastic escape slides, while firefighters carried some who could not walk.

“I saw elderly patients scrambling out through the windows and had to help,” said Woo Young-min, 25, as he stood in his pyjamas outside the hospital.

The fire broke out in the morning at the rear of the emergency room on the hospital’s first floor, fire official Choi Man-woo told reporters.

Television broadcast images of black smoke billowing from the windows and entrance of the hospital.

At least 177 patients, most of them elderly, were in the hospital and a nursing home next door when the fire broke out, hospital director Song told reporters.

Song said three of the nine hospital staff on duty at the time died - at least one doctor, a nurse and a nurse’s aide.

Most of those who died were on the first and second floors, said Choi, adding that there were no deaths from burns.

By Friday afternoon, police had cordoned off the hospital, as forensic investigators moved in. Charred debris and shattered glass littered the ground outside.

In 29 December people were killed in a blaze at an eight-storey fitness centre in Jecheon City, most of them women trapped in a sauna. That disaster fuelled anger over reports of shoddy construction, among other shortcomings.

In 2014, a fire at a rural hospital killed 21 people, while a 2008 warehouse fire outside Seoul killed 40.

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