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Taiwan’s ‘Ghost Building’ Fire: a Death Trap for Dozens of Elderly

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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.”

With search-and-rescue efforts completed, prosecutors were investigating what could have caused the blaze that began on the first floor of the commercial and residential building and quickly spread to higher floors. They have not ruled out arson, and on Friday were questioning a couple after a scorched incense burner was found in a back room on the first floor.

But the fire’s high death toll — the second-highest of any building fire in Taiwan’s history — has also spurred broader questions about lax safety standards in the island’s older buildings.

The Kaohsiung building is one of many aging structures across the island that have fallen into severe disrepair as a result of weak management and government neglect. On Friday, local officials said they had identified 34 “high-risk” older buildings in the city that they would be inspecting for safety and fire-code violations.

The blaze also highlighted the lack of support for poor and older people who are desperate for housing and often had no choice but to live in these last-chance buildings. Skyrocketing housing costs in Taiwan’s cities — and a rapidly aging population — have exacerbated these issues in recent years and have outpaced the government’s efforts to resolve them.

To those who lived and worked in the building, the fire was a disaster waiting to happen.

“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.”

On Friday morning, 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.

Built in the 1980s, the building in Kaohsiung’s waterfront Yancheng District had once been a hive of activity, with a giant banquet hall, a performance arts theater and shops where people came to see and be seen.

But over time, as Kaohsiung’s political and economic activity shifted toward the eastern end of the city, the structure — and the surrounding neighborhood — slowly deteriorated. Businesses moved out, leaving behind piles of garbage that fire officials said later accelerated the fire and impeded rescue efforts. Squatters and sex workers moved in, and as did poor, older and disabled people later on.

In Ms. Huang’s case, she had taken the eighth-floor apartment because housing costs had skyrocketed in Kaohsiung. She had to pay only the equivalent of $100 or so a month — about one-third of her salary — for a one-room unit.

Nearly three years ago, Cherry Chiu, 46, also took a one-bedroom unit in the building. The conditions were terrible but it was all Ms. Chiu, a part-time insurance sales agent, could afford.

Like most residents in the building, she and her mother, who uses a wheelchair, were in bed at the time of the fire, which began around 3 a.m. After waking up to the smell of smoke, she saw firefighters on the ground beneath her ninth-story unit trying desperately to put out the wall of fire that had enveloped the lower floors. Through the front door of her apartment, she heard screams for help from her neighbors.

Using her cellphone flashlight, Ms. Chiu gestured frantically to a firefighter outside, who maneuvered an aerial ladder to her apartment window. Using all of her might, Ms. Chiu lifted her 85-year-old mother into the arms of the firefighter before climbing into the basket.

“We were at death’s door,” said Ms. Chiu, coughing intermittently as she recalled the harrowing experience. Officials say that most of those killed lived in cramped, rented units between the building’s seventh and 11th floors and died from smoke inhalation.

“The most painful thing is the heartache,” Ms. Chiu said. “So many lives were lost.”

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 overlooked, said Wang Jieh-jiuh, a professor of urban planning at Ming Chuan University in Taipei.

In the case of Thursday’s fire, 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, said Lee Ching-hsiu, the city’s fire chief.

“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 vowed on Thursday to strengthen the enforcement of laws that require older buildings to have management committees to 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 debris.

Still, weak management and oversight persisted. 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 blaze also exposed deeper problems, like the lack of support for Taiwan’s rapidly aging population. The average age of those who died in the fire was 62.

The issue of affordable housing for older residents has become particularly pressing. 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 poor health.

Most of the residents of the Kaohsiung building were squatters or renters who paid as little as $70 a month, often for a tiny subdivided unit. Only nine of the 120 households in the building were covered by fire insurance, 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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