Smoke rises from a burning hospital in Miryang, South Korea, on January 26, 2018. Photo: Yonhap via Reuters
Smoke rises from a burning hospital in Miryang, South Korea, on January 26, 2018. Photo: Yonhap via Reuters

At least 37 people have died, with around 70 injured, in a fire at a South Korean geriatric hospital, according to broadcasters YTN and Yonhap Television news at the scene.

Television images from Sejong Hospital in Miryang, a small city in Korea’s southeast near the port of Busan, showed smoke billowing around the six-story, 193-bed, concrete hospital as firefighters evacuated and secured the area on Friday morning.

The cause is as yet unknown, but early indications are that the fire started on the first floor at around 7:30am, and fumes were responsible for most of the casualties, who reportedly include one doctor, one nurse and an assistant nurse.

The tragedy is the second deadly fire in two months. In December, 29 people were killed in a fire at a sauna in the town of Jecheon. South Korean President  Moon Jae-in has demanded a full investigation into that incident.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon visited the situation room in the city, where he ordered a probe into the fire. He also expressed frustration with the fact that this is the second deadly blaze in two months.

“We promised to make sure this kind of incident won’t happen again, and I am ashamed to say the same thing,” he said, according to Yonhap. “Accidents come in various types, and it is our obligation to prevent a recurrence after learning from this painful experience.”

A 30-member, cross-agency investigation team has been dispatched to the city to help cope with the aftermath.

While safety laws and regulations in South Korea are widely considered world class, enforcement has customarily been lax, and in some cases, corruption has been found to have been a contributing cause. In the sauna fire, it was found that fire exits were used as storage space and a glass door had been inoperable, preventing victims from escaping. Moreover, some construction materials used in the building were reportedly sub-standard.

A patient is rescued from the burning hospital in Miryang. Photo: Kim Dong-min / Yonhap via Reuters

Following the deaths of 299 passengers, mostly schoolchildren, in the sinking of the ferry Sewol in April 2014, there was nationwide soul searching over the nation’s poor safety record. Probes discovered that a number of safety procedures and regulations had been breached or not enforced, notably the overloading of the cargo deck, and the failure to secure the cargo. Some members of the public cynically renamed their nation, the Republic of Korea, “The Republic of Disasters.”

With many blaming then-President Park Geun-hye for failing to effectively manage the crisis, the ferry tragedy has been seen, in retrospect, as the first step in a loss of public trust leading to massive demonstrations and Park’s eventual impeachment in 2017.