At least 41 dead, over 100 injured in major blaze at hospital in South Korea

A fire spread flames and smoke through a South Korean hospital Friday morning, killing at least 41 people, mainly from suffocation, and injuring more than 100 others in one of the country's deadliest blazes in years. The dead included three hospital staff and several people in an intensive-care unit for respiratory illnesses.

The fire started in Sejong Hospital's emergency room and had engulfed the first floor when firefighters arrived. They approached the second floor through the windows to rescue trapped patients, said Choi Man-wu, a fire official in the southeastern city of Miryang.

He said smoke could have spread quickly through the building's staircase at the center, but the flames were extinguished before reaching the third floor. The cause of the fire wasn't immediately known. The hospital's operations were suspended after the fire.

All the dead were from the hospital's general ward, while all 94 people being cared for in a nursing ward for the elderly were safely evacuated after the fire, some carried on the backs of firefighters, Choi said.

Ten of the injured are in critical condition, local medical official Cheon Jae-kyung said in the same televised briefing, suggesting the toll is feared to increase. Fire officials said 131 were injured, 18 of them in serious condition.

"Two nurses said they had seen fire suddenly erupting in the emergency room," said fire chief Choi Man-Woo.

All the patients had been brought out, he said, adding that evacuating 15 sick people from the intensive care unit on the third floor took longer as firefighters had to wait for medical staff to supervise the process.

All those who died were in the hospital, he said.

"Many victims were from the first and second floors of the hospital... some died on their way to another hospital," he said.

Most of the dead had been hospitalized for respiratory diseases in an intensive-care unit on the second floor. Two doctors and nine nurses were working in the emergency room at the time of fire, but their fates weren't immediately known.

Most of the deaths appeared to be due to suffocation, with only one suffering burns, said an official at the National Fire Agency who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to media. The identification of the dead was underway, he said.

President Moon Jae-in expressed regret over the blaze at an emergency meeting convened with his senior advisers. He ordered officials to provide necessary medical supports to those rescued, find the exact cause of the fire and work out measures to prevent future fires, according to his spokesman Park Su-hyun.

South Korea is one of the fastest-aging countries in the world and has many nursing hospitals, which are preferred for elderly people who need long-term doctors' care.

Several recent fires in South Korea have been deadly.

In late December, 29 people were killed in a building fire in central Seoul, which was the country's deadliest blaze over the past decade before the hospital fire. Last weekend, a fire at a Seoul motel killed six people, and police arrested a man who allegedly set it ablaze in anger because he had been denied a room for being heavily drunk.

In 2014, a fire set by an 81-year-old dementia patient killed 21 at another hospital for the elderly.

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