SEOUL, South Korea – A fire believed to have been set by a man with dementia suffocated 21 people and injured seven others Wednesday at a South Korean hospital that specializes in dementia and palsy patients, police and fire officers said.
An 81-year-old patient was detained on suspicion of setting the fire at the Hyosarang Hospital in Jangseong county. Security video showed the man entering the room where the blaze began and the remains of a lighter were found in that room, local police station chief Noh Kyu-ho told a televised briefing. Noh said the man, only identified his surname Kim, denied responsibility.
But another police officer said the video footage showed the fire started about two minutes after Kim left the room, where he was not staying. The officer, requesting anonymity citing department rules, said hairs on Kim's arms and hands were partly burned, though he moved on to his room, which wasn't affected by the blaze, before quickly getting out of the hospital later.
Jangseong Fire Department officials said 20 patients and one nurse suffocated and that seven people were injured. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of office rules.
Kim Jeong-bae, one of the firefighters who entered the building, said none of the bodies that he and his colleagues retrieved were burned and that they apparently were already dead when firefighters entered the hospital while it was engulfed in black smoke.
There were 34 patients and a nurse on duty on the second floor of an annex of Hyosarang Hospital when the fire broke out, officials said. More than 270 firefighters put the fire out after about six minutes, the officials said.
Officials said that 45 people, including a nurse, were on the hospital's first floor but that they all escaped.
South Korean media including Yonhap news agency earlier had reported some of the dead had their hands bound to their beds without citing any source for the information. Fire officials later Wednesday said that report was inaccurate.
Kim, the firefighter, said all the dead bodies he saw were found on beds or on the floor but none of them had their hands bound. He said the second-floor windows are barred. Two hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the media, also said that patients were not bound to beds.
The fire comes as South Korea debates long-ignored safety lapses 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.