SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A fire believed set by an 81-year-old dementia patient blazed through a hospital ward for the elderly Wednesday and killed 21 people in southern South Korea, mostly from smoke inhalation, police and fire officials said.
The fire on the second floor of the Hyosarang Hospital in Jangseong county also injured seven people and raised concerns about lax fire regulations at a time when the nation is undergoing soul-searching about public safety following the ferry sinking last month that left more than 300 people dead or missing.
Media reports noted that hospitals for the elderly such as Hyosarang, which specializes in dementia and palsy patients, are not required to have sprinklers in South Korea despite a rapidly aging population.
"These are the incidents that wretchedly show the dangerous foundation on which our country is established," the Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper said in an editorial on its website.
Security video showed the suspect entering the room where the blaze began, and the remains of a lighter were found in that room, police station chief Noh Kyu-ho told a televised briefing. Noh said the man, identified only by his surname Kim, denied responsibility.
The video footage showed the fire starting to spread from that room about two minutes after Kim left, another police officer said, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of department rules. Hairs on Kim's arms and hands were singed and he had moved back to his own room afterward and then quickly exited the hospital later, the police officer said.
There were 34 patients and one nurse on the hospital's second floor at the time of the blaze, and Jangseong Fire Department officials said 20 of the patients and the nurse were killed, mostly from suffocation. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of office rules.
More than 270 firefighters put the fire out after about six minutes, officials said.
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