Taiwan’s last-ditch ‘ghost’ building becomes death trap for many


KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan – Huang Chin-chih had heard disturbing stories about the “ghost building,” and the 58-year-old housekeeper was not happy to move in. She had heard of gangs, the homeless and prostitution. She saw the drunken squatters, the dark hallways and the garbage piles in the stairwells.

On Friday, three months after moving in, Ms. Huang felt grateful that she was not among the dead after a fire ravaged the partially abandoned 13-story mixed-use building in the southern port city of Kaohsiung on Thursday evening. The fire killed 46 of its neighbors and injured dozens more. 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 come out and returned to find her house engulfed in a hell of orange and red flames. . “I just feel lucky that I wasn’t here that night.”

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

Authorities were also on Friday interview a couple after a burnt incense burner was found in a back room on the first floor.

At a press conference Thursday evening, Chen Chi-Mai, mayor of Kaohsiung, pledged to conduct a full investigation into the tragedy and the city’s fire safety standards.

“I will find out if there were any loopholes in the laws and regulations surrounding these old buildings which meant that lives and property could not be fully protected,” said the mayor, who bowed to contrition, as well as several other local officials.

By Friday morning, search and rescue efforts were over and the clatter of metal could be heard as workers wearing hard hats began to erect scaffolding around the blackened and perforated facade of the building’s lower floors. A faint smell of smoke hung in the air. Several officials arrived in the middle of the morning to drop off white chrysanthemums in the street in front of the gutted building.

Ms. Huang was one of the many people who wondered how the fire had caused so many deaths. She spoke in front of a community leader’s office, where she was trying to seek compensation.

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

She lost most of her belongings the night of the fire. She is now staying at a nearby hotel made available by the government.

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

“This building was a tumor of Kaohsiung,” said Hong Xian-kai, speaking to the charred remains of the antiquarian he led on the ground floor of the building for nearly 30 years. “Nobody did it, and nobody cared.”

Built in the 1980s, the once prosperous Yancheng District building on the waterfront of Kaohsiung had fallen into disrepair in recent years. The businesses have moved, leaving behind piles of garbage on the abandoned lower floors of the building and in the stairwells. Firefighters said the litter accelerated the blaze and hampered rescue efforts.

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

He added that the building materials on the lower floors did not meet fire safety standards and were contributing to the speed at which the flames spread through the building.

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

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

“From the start, the emphasis has been on building beautiful structures, when we really need to focus on safety first,” said Professor Wang. “Urban development shouldn’t just be about the physical environment.

Taiwan’s interior ministry is committed to strengthening enforcement of laws that require older buildings to have management committees that help oversee safety issues. For years, the Kaohsiung building did not have an official management committee. It was only recently that a group of residents came together to address some of the structure’s lingering safety issues, including corroded pipes, exposed power cables and piles of rubbish.

Lin Chin-rong, deputy mayor of Kaohsiung, said police and firefighters had inspected the Kaohsiung building four times since 2019, and firefighters issued an inspection notice as late as Tuesday. But Mr. Hong, the owner of the antique store, said he was not aware of any such inspections.

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

The fire also revealed deeper issues of lack of support for Taiwan’s aging population. The average age of those who perished in the blaze was 62. The island is set 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 aging population, combined with a declining birth rate, has strained the island’s social safety net, and the issue of affordable housing for senior citizens has become particularly important. The problem has been exacerbated by the discrimination of landlords who are often reluctant to rent to older residents, who are seen as more problematic due to their frailty and poor health.

Most of the residents of the Kaohsiung apartment building were squatters or tenants who paid as little as $ 70 per month, often for a tiny subdivided unit. Only nine of the building’s 120 households were covered by fire insurance, officials said.

“The problem is not just the fire, but the many structural problems behind the fire,” said Chen Liang-Chun, assistant professor of town planning at National Taiwan University.

“In Taiwan, it’s always like that,” added Professor Chen. “Natural hazards happen all the time, but it’s anthropogenic factors that turn those risks into disasters. “

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