A blaze tore through a Taiwan hospital for bed-bound seniors and mentally ill patients Tuesday, killing 12 and injuring 60, with police reportedly arresting a patient suspected of starting the fire.
The fire erupted before dawn at Beimen nursing facility in south Taiwan's Tainan city, whose 115 patients included people in their 90s, with several left on their own to escape dense smoke that filled the building.
Local media said police had arrested a person believed to be a hospital patient on suspicion of starting the blaze -- Taiwan's worst hospital fire in years. Police and prosecutors declined to comment.
Closed-circuit TV footage taken moments after the blaze broke out showed hospital staff scrambling to put out the fire, while elderly patients struggled to escape down the corridor in their wheelchairs.
"My mother saw the fire and smelled the smoke so she got on her wheelchair and pushed herself out. She is very brave and very lucky," the daughter of 94-year-old survivor Wang Ho-shou told AFP.
Another patient told Central News Agency he was lucky to escape the fire as he was able to walk on his own and was later rescued by firefighters.
"It was pitch black and the heavy smoke was unbearable, it was really horrifying," he was quoted by the agency as saying.
The United Evening News said four patients lost their lives at the nursing facility, while eight others died after being taken to other hospitals in the area. The deaths were believed to be caused by smoke inhalation.
Television footage showed rescuers and hospital staff pushing out unconscious patients in their wheelchairs or beds, with many laid out on the lawn in front of the building as they tried to resuscitate the serious cases with CPR.
One crying woman was shown clutching the hand of an elderly man who lay lifeless in his pyjamas at the hospital entrance.
Fire officials said the fire possibly started in a crammed storage room on the second floor of the five-floor building, a branch of the public Sinying Hospital.
Premier Sean Chen expressed his shock, while President Ma Ying-jeou sent his condolences to the families of the victims, according to government statements.
"President Ma... has instructed the health department to provide emergency shelter and follow-up treatment," his office said in a statement.
Tainan mayor Lai Ching-te told reporters that the fire was unusually deadly because the hospital was in a relatively remote area and most of the patients were immobile.
Health Minister Chiu Wen-ta sought to pacify anxious relatives of patients who rushed to the hospital, saying that authorities were trying to identify the dead and injured as soon as possible, according to TVBS cable news channel.
Chiu also announced that an island-wide check on fire equipment in all medical facilities will be conducted this week, though there has been no suggestion so far that faulty equipment was to blame for this incident.
Relatives complained that they only learned about the fire on television since the hospital failed to notify the families.
"I asked hospital staff where my parents were, and they said they didn't know. They had not written down the names of any of those hospitalised," one of them said, sobbing.
By afternoon, some relatives had arrived at a local funeral home to identify the bodies of their loved ones as social and charity workers offered support.
The fire also raised concerns in the local media about whether staffing had been sufficient, as there were only six staff on night duty for the 70 patients on the second floor where the fire appeared to have started.