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(4th LD) Nursing home fire kills 21 people, injures 8

All Headlines 21:00 May 28, 2014

(ATTN: UPDATES with more details about police investigation in paras 3, 12-14; ADDS photo)

JANGSEONG, South Korea, May 28 (Yonhap) -- A fire ripped through a nursing home in southern South Korea early Wednesday, killing at least 21 people, mostly elderly patients, and injuring eight others, police and fire officials said.

The officials said six of the injured were in critical condition, raising fears that the death toll could rise.

The blaze was confirmed to have started at a utility room on the second floor of a three-story annex of the hospice in Jangseong County, some 300 kilometers south of Seoul, at around 12:27 a.m., the officials said.

The fire was brought under control in about 30 minutes, said Kim Kyong-man, a fire official.

Most of the patients were in their 70s and 80s, and suffering from Alzheimer's disease, a stroke or other chronic diseases, the officials said.

The fire and hospital officials denied earlier media reports that the hands of some of the patients were tied to bed posts when the fire broke out.

The victims are presumed to have died from asphyxiation after toxic fumes filled the building, the officials said, while the cause of the fire remains unknown.

One nurse was on duty at the annex at the time of the accident, Kim said, adding that she is among the dead.

About 10 patients on the first floor escaped shortly after the fire started, but some 30 patients on the second floor were exposed to toxic fumes, according to the officials.

Police, meanwhile, said they have arrested an 82-year-old man suffering from dementia for questioning on suspicion of launching an arson attack on the hospital.

The suspect, surnamed Kim, is also a patient at the hospital and appears to have set fire to the annex, police said, citing CCTV footage.

The footage shows him going into the utility room with what looks like a blanket and leaving empty-handed. The remains of a cigarette lighter was also discovered at the scene of the fire, police said. Kim, however, has denied the charges against him.

He has no criminal record for arson and was hospitalized to treat cerebral infarction with symptoms of dementia early last month, they said.

Police said they will continue questioning him to determine the exact cause of the fire after helping him regain mental stability.

A director of the nursing home offered an apology, vowing that all of the staff will do their best in dealing with the aftermath.

"I've committed a grave sin," the director Lee Hyung-seok told reporters. "There is no excuse when valuable lives were sacrificed."

The three-story, 397-bed hospital opened in 2007, police said, adding that it had recently undergone safety checks.

The accident came two days after seven people were killed and 41 others were injured in a fire at a bus terminal in Goyang, just northwest of Seoul. The deadly blaze was sparked by welding work at an underground restaurant.

South Korea remains gripped by shock and grief following last month's ferry sinking that claimed the lives of nearly 300 people and laid bare the country's lax safety standards.

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