MIRYANG, South Korea: Distraught relatives of those killed in a deadly South Korean hospital fire voiced anger Saturday at what they perceived as another man-made disaster in Asia’s fourth largest economy, just as it prepares to host the Winter Olympics.
The huge blaze that erupted at the hospital in the southeastern city of Miryang on Friday killed at least 37 people including 34 patients — mostly elderly women — and three medical staff in the country’s worst fire disaster in a decade.
The fire came only a month after 29 people were killed in an inferno at a fitness club in Jecheon, a disaster blamed on insufficient emergency exits, flammable finishing materials and illegally parked cars blocking access for emergency vehicles.
Scenes of despair and anger unfurled at a city gymnasium where a joint memorial altar was set up Saturday for the 37 victims, with anguished relatives sobbing uncontrollably and screaming at government officials who came to pay their respects.
“My mother! Bring my mother back to life!” a young woman cried in front of the altar bearing a row of portraits of the victims and their name plaques surrounded by hundreds of white chrysanthemums.
“My poor mother can never come back no matter what you say!” she shouted at visiting officials before collapsing on the floor.
President Moon Jae-on visited on Saturday the altar to console grieving relatives and promised to improve safety regulations after inspecting the gutted hospital.
“I feel so devastated that a disaster like this keeps happening although the government has promised repeatedly to build a safe country,” Moon said.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation. But the hospital did not have any fire sprinkler or smoke-control-systems as it was not large enough to be required to install them under local safety rules.
“I would have never sent my mother to this hospital had I known there was no fire sprinkler or smoke-control systems,” said a relative of one of the victims, who only gave his family name, Kim.
“Of all the places in the world, can you imagine a hospital without fire sprinklers?”
One relative even shouted at a group of conservative lawmakers who came to the altar, “Did you guys not oppose reforming the fire code rules? Then why are you here?”
A middle-aged woman blamed herself for her mother’s death.
“Her whole body was covered with soot and her face was burnt ... it’s all my fault. I took her there for a medical check-up.”
Miryang resident Kang Eun-soo said his 88-year-old sister was killed in the fire and her two children, who were visiting her, were seriously injured making a dramatic escape from the burning building.
“My niece jumped off the window from the third floor, seriously injuring her back ... and the nephew inhaled too much smoke,” he told AFP, adding they were in critical condition in hospital.
“My sister spent her whole life to raise her seven children ... we can’t let her go like this, not like this,” he said, wiping away tears.
The tragedy has rattled residents of the sleepy city of Miryang.
A stream of mourners visited the altar, from teenagers and uniformed troops to parents who brought their children.
“This is a close-knit community where practically everybody knows everybody else, and everybody is like brothers and sisters,” local businessman Woo Moon-Hwan said after paying his respects at the altar.
The “heartbreaking” tragedy had deeply rattled him, the 59-year-old said.
“Who knows? Something like this could happen to me one day,” he told AFP.