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A Last-Chance ‘Ghost’ Building in Taiwan Becomes a Deathtrap for Many

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — Huang Chin-chih had heard disturbing stories about the “ghost building,” and the 58-year-old housemaid was not thrilled about moving in. She had heard about the gangs, the homeless people and the prostitution. She saw the drunk squatters, the dark corridors and the piles of garbage in the stairwells.

On Friday, three months after she moved in, Ms. Huang was feeling grateful not to be among the dead after a fire tore through the partly abandoned 13-story mixed-used building on Thursday night in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. The blaze killed 46 of her neighbors and injured dozens of others. It was Taiwan’s deadliest structural fire in more than two decades.

“I was afraid of this ghost building, but I had no choice but to live here,” said Ms. Huang, who had been out and returned to find her home engulfed in a raging inferno of orange and red flames. “I’m just feeling lucky I was not there that night.”

Prosecutors have set up a task force to investigate the state of the run-down building before the blaze. Officials had said that they were investigating the possibility that “human factors” were involved in the fire, which began on the first floor of the commercial and residential building and quickly spread to higher floors.

The authorities on Friday were also questioning a couple after a scorched incense burner was found in a back room on the first floor.

Rescuers tending to a survivor on Thursday. Those killed in the fire were mostly low-income, older or disabled residents who lived in cramped units.Credit…Johnson Liu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

During a news conference on Thursday evening, Chen Chi-mai, Kaohsiung’s mayor, pledged to conduct a thorough investigation of the tragedy and the city’s fire safety standards.

“I will find out whether there were deficiencies in the laws and regulations surrounding these old buildings that made it so that lives and property could not be fully protected,” said the mayor, who bowed in contrition, along with several other local officials.

By Friday morning, search-and-rescue efforts had been completed and the clanging of metal could be heard as workers in hard hats began erecting scaffolding around the blackened and punched-out facade of the building’s lower floors. The faint smell of smoke lingered in the air. Several officials arrived midmorning to lay white chrysanthemums on the street in front of the gutted building.

Ms. Huang was one of many people asking how the fire could have taken so many lives. She spoke outside a community official’s office, where she was trying to apply for compensation.

She had reluctantly taken her eighth-floor apartment because housing costs had skyrocketed in Kaohsiung and she would pay only the equivalent of $100 or so a month — about one-third of her salary — for a spacious one-room unit. So, she went for it.

She lost most of her possessions the night of the blaze. She is now staying at a nearby hotel being provided by the government.

Rescue workers at the site of the fire on Thursday. Piles of garbage were left on the building’s abandoned lower floors and in the stairwells. Fire officials said that the garbage accelerated the blaze and impeded rescue efforts.Credit…Wu Po-Yuan, via Reuters

The fire’s relatively high death toll has also spurred broader questions about lax safety standards in Taiwan’s older buildings and the government’s neglect of marginalized communities.

“This building was a tumor of Kaohsiung,” said Hong Xian-kai, speaking outside the charred remains of the antique shop that he ran on the building’s ground floor for nearly 30 years. “No one managed it, and no one cared about it.”

Built in the 1980s, the once-prosperous building in Kaohsiung’s waterfront Yancheng District had become dilapidated in recent years. Businesses moved out, leaving behind piles of garbage on the building’s abandoned lower floors and in the stairwells. Fire officials said that the litter accelerated the fire and impeded rescue efforts.

The officials said that most of those killed died from severe smoke inhalation. The victims were mostly low-income, older or disabled residents who lived in cramped, rented units between the building’s seventh and 11th floors. Lee Ching-hsiu, the city’s fire chief, said that most of the residents had been asleep at the time of the fire, which began around 3 a.m.

He added that construction materials in the lower floors did not meet fire-safety standards and contributed to the speed with which the flames raced through the building.

Officials giving a news conference at the site on Thursday, during which Kaohsiung’s mayor pledged to conduct a thorough investigation.Credit…Kaohsiung city government

Taiwan’s government has long been aware of structural and safety problems surrounding the island’s numerous older buildings. In 1999, when a powerful earthquake killed 2,415 people on the island, many blamed shoddy construction for the high death toll.

While efforts were made after the earthquake to overhaul building codes and redevelop urban areas, older buildings that had been constructed under outdated safety guidelines were often neglected, said Wang Jieh-jiuh, a professor of urban planning at Ming Chuan University in Taipei.

“All along, the focus has been on building beautiful structures, when really we need to be focusing on safety first,” Professor Wang said. “Urban development should not just be about the physical environment.”

Taiwan’s Interior Ministry has vowed to strengthen the enforcement of laws that require older buildings to have management committees that help oversee safety issues. For years, the Kaohsiung building had lacked an official management committee. Only recently did a group of residents come together to address some of the structure’s persistent safety concerns, which included corroded pipes, exposed electricity cables and heaps of detritus.

Lin Chin-rong, the deputy mayor of Kaohsiung, said that police and fire officials had inspected the Kaohsiung building four times since 2019, and that fire officials had posted an inspection notice as recently as Tuesday. But Mr. Hong, the antique shop owner, said he was not aware of any such inspections.

“Fire safety equipment? Where?” he asked. “It was a dangerous building.”

The charred walls of the building. The fire’s relatively high death toll has spurred larger questions about lax safety standards in Taiwan’s older buildings.Credit…Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

The blaze also exposed deeper problems of the lack of support for Taiwan’s rapidly aging population. The average age of those who perished in the fire was 62. The island is on track to become what the United Nations calls a “super-aged society” by 2025, when one in five citizens will be over 65.

Experts said the graying population, combined with a declining birthrate, has put a strain on the island’s social safety net, and the issue of affordable housing for older citizens has become particularly important. The problem has been exacerbated by discrimination from landlords who are often reluctant to rent to older residents, who are viewed as more problematic because of their frailty and poor health.

Most of the residents of the Kaohsiung building were squatters or renters who paid as little as 70 dollars a month, often for a tiny subdivided unit. Only nine out of the 120 households in the building had fire insurance coverage, officials said.

“The problem is not just the fire, but the many structural issues that lie behind the fire,” said Chen Liang-Chun, an adjunct professor of urban planning at National Taiwan University.

“In Taiwan, it is always like this,” Professor Chen added. “Natural hazards happen all the time, but man-made factors are what turn those hazards into disasters.”

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