SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A fire at a hospital annex housing elderly patients in the southwestern county of Jangseong killed 21 people early Wednesday, officials said.
Twenty patients and a nurse died at the hospital, which specializes in elderly patients who suffer from dementia and palsy, and seven others were injured, officials with the Jangseong Fire Department said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of office rules.
The victims died after suffocating on poisonous gas, officials said.
There were 35 patients and a nurse on duty on the second floor of an annex of Hyosarang Hospital when the fire broke out, officials said. The fire was put out after about six minutes, the officials said. The cause was not immediately known.
Officials said that 45 people, including a nurse, were on the hospital's first floor but they all escaped.
Some of the dead had their hands bound to their beds, and the second-floor windows were barred, Yonhap news agency reported, without citing any sources for the information. Emergency officials couldn't immediately confirm the report. Two hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the media, said that patients are not bound to beds. But they said they were checking into the details of what happened.
The fire comes as South Korea debates long-ignored safety lapses and a history of corner-cutting in a country that rapidly rose from poverty and the destruction of the 1950-53 Korean War to become Asia's fourth biggest economy.
Officials are still searching for more than a dozen bodies from a ferry sinking last month that left more than 300 people dead or missing, most of them high school students. South Korea has also had two subway accidents in recent weeks. And a fire earlier this week at a bus terminal near Seoul killed eight people and injured 57.
AP writer Jung-yoon Choi contributed to this report from Seoul.