SEOUL — A fire swept through a South Korean hospice for elderly, infirm patients early on Wednesday, killing 21 people in what police said appeared to be an act of arson by an 81-year-old Alzheimer's sufferer.
Seven were injured in the blaze, which broke out shortly after midnight at the hospice in Jangseong county about 300km south of Seoul.
The facility cared for close to 80 chronically ill, largely bedridden patients, including stroke victims and many in the advanced stages of senility.
It was the latest in a series of fatal incidents following last month's ferry disaster that claimed the lives of around 250 schoolchildren.
A police official in Jangseong said an 81-year-old man suffering from Alzheimer's had been taken into custody after CCTV footage appeared to show him setting the fire in a storage room on the upper floor of the two-storey building.
Although the blaze was brought under control within 30 minutes, many on the upper floor were unable to evacuate as the rooms filled with thick, acrid smoke.
"Most of them died as the result of smoke inhalation," a fire official said by telephone from Jangseong,
One of three nurses on duty at the time died as she tried to douse the flames with a fire extinguisher.
It was the second deadly blaze in two days after seven people were killed and 41 injured in a fire at a bus terminal near Seoul on Monday.
The country is still reeling from the trauma of the April 16 Sewol ferry tragedy, which killed around 300 people – most of them high school students.
The Sewol disaster triggered a heated national debate as to whether South Korea's rapid economic development has come at the expense of basic safety standards – particularly for those most vulnerable or at risk.
Lee Hyung-Seok, chief administrator of the Jangseong hospice, knelt and touched his forehead to the ground in a display of contrition.
"I'm sorry. I apologise for this terrible thing," Lee said.
In the wake of the Sewol disaster, President Park Geun-Hye vowed harsh penalties for any acts of criminal negligence that resulted in fatal accidents.
The 20 patient fatalities were among 34 people in wards on the upper floor, only seven of whom managed to escape the fire by themselves.
Seven more were rescued by firefighters but were in a serious condition as a result of smoke inhalation.
South Korea has a rapidly ageing population and the number of nursing homes and other facilities catering to the elderly has doubled to nearly 1,300 from just 690 in 2008.
The high death toll in the fire will raise questions over safety procedures, and intensify pressure on Park, whose ruling Saenuri Party is expected to suffer a voter backlash over the Sewol ferry disaster in nationwide local elections next week.
The loss of so many young lives on the Sewol left deep emotional scars on a country that had, until now, taken enormous pride in its extraordinarily swift transformation from a war-torn, impoverished backwater to Asia's fourth-largest economy.
Investigations have suggested the disaster was almost wholly man-made: the result of cut corners, regulatory violations, poor safety training and a woeful lack of oversight – all, or nearly all, attributable to a desire to maximise profits. Much of the public anger has been targeted at the political establishment, including Park who tearfully apologised in a televised address to the nation last week.
She vowed a radical overhaul of national safety procedures and announced that she was dismantling the coastguard, whose response to the ferry disaster was widely criticised.
Recent weeks have also seen two subway accidents which claimed no lives, but left several hundred injured.
In February, the roof of a gymnasium packed with college freshmen collapsed at a southern mountain resort, killing 10 people and injuring 200. — AFP