(ATTN: UPDATES with police briefing in paras 3-9)
MIRYANG, South Korea, Jan. 26 (Yonhap) -- A fire gutted the ground floor of a hospital in southeastern South Korea on Friday and sent toxic fumes raging through the six-story building, killing at least 37 people and injuring 143 others in one of the country's deadliest blazes in a decade.
Nearly 180 people were inside Sejong Hospital in Miryang, 280 kilometers southeast of Seoul, when the fire broke out around 7:30 a.m.
Authorities said more than half of the dead were elderly citizens aged 80 or older, and 34 of the dead were women.
Police have obtained testimony that the fire started on the first floor of the building where the hospital's emergency room is located.
Some witnesses say the nurses' changing and tea-making room next to the emergency room was the first to catch fire. Nurses usually use electric heating appliances there, according to the police.
CCTV footage unveiled by police showed smoke coming into the emergency room seven minutes before it was first reported to the local fire station.
It also showed a nurse and a hospital official urgently running out with a fire extinguisher as the smoke got thicker. The smoke soon filled the room to reduce the visibility to almost zero in the footage.
Police interviewed hospital officials to determine what exactly caused the fire.
"We focused on discovering the identity of the 37 dead today and will shift to forensic examination of the site tomorrow," Kim Han-soo, the top police investigator in charge of the case at the Gyeongnam Provincial Police Agency, said during a press briefing.
The death toll was reported to have climbed to 41, but officials later corrected it, saying some victims were counted twice. Still, the toll could rise further as seven of the injured are in a serious condition, officials said.
The fire completely burned out the hospital's first floor, but didn't reach the higher levels. But smoke was seen billowing from windows on higher floors, and most of the fatalities were believed to have died from inhaling toxic gas. The dead included one doctor and two nurses.
Firefighters brought the blaze under control around 9:30 a.m. and completely put it out about an hour later. The injured were sent to 14 nearby hospitals.
The hospital consisted of two buildings -- one of them a general hospital with 95 beds and the other a nursing home with 98 beds. The fire broke out at the main hospital building. All inside the nursing home were safely evacuated.
The number of deaths was high as many of the victims were patients with difficulty freely moving around. The death toll rose sharply in the first few hours of the fire as those rescued out of the building died one after another.
The disaster came about a month after a fire at a sports center building killed 29 people.
It is the country's deadliest fire since 2008, when 40 workers were killed in a warehouse blaze in the city of Icheon, south of Seoul.
President Moon Jae-in called for swift measures to minimize damage from the fire.
He issued the instruction after convening an emergency meeting of top presidential aides at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae.
"The president ordered taking of all necessary measures for those rescued to prevent additional damage," Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Park Soo-hyun told a press briefing.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon traveled to the site and called for a thorough investigation.
"There can be questions about how this amount of damage occurred in such a short period of time," Lee said. "We have to offer convincing explanations to the people in a detailed and transparent manner and determine who is responsible."
Lee also offered an apology, noting that the government promised to take steps to prevent such a disaster from happening again when a fire at a sports center in the central city of Jecheon killed 29 people last month.
"We promised to make sure this kind of incident won't happen again, and I'm ashamed to say the same thing," he said. "Accidents come in various types, and it is our obligation to prevent a recurrence after learning from this painful experience."
Lee promised to provide as much state support as possible for victims.
The interior and safety ministry said it dispatched an interagency team of officials to the site to help cope with the aftermath of the disaster. The 30-member team is comprised of officials from the interior ministry, the national fire agency, the health ministry, the labor ministry and the land and transport ministry.
The government also plans to assign one official to the family of each victim to help with medical treatment, funeral and other matters, officials said. The government will also send additional doctors and medical staff to 14 hospitals where the injured are being treated.
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