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article imageNameless heroes of South Korea fire disaster

By Jung Ha-Won (AFP)     Jan 27, 2018 in World

The deadly hospital blaze in Miryang killed 37 people and injured more than 100 in South Korea's worst fire disaster in a decade.

But witnesses said Friday's toll could have been far higher without the heroic acts of ordinary citizens and medical staff who risked -- or lost -- their lives to rescue the patients who were mostly frail, elderly women.

A witness, who only gave her surname Kim, said a man driving a moving truck with a long metal ladder arrived at the scene to rescue many people before the toxic smoke filled the building.

"The truck came even before ambulances or firefighting trucks ... and lifted the ladder towards people screaming for help from the windows of the second and third floor," Kim said -- an account confirmed by many other witnesses.

The fire -- whose cause is not known yet -- started in the emergency room on the first floor and quickly consumed walls made of shoddy finishing materials, sending clouds of dark, toxic smoke billowing through the six-storey building.

"The driver repeatedly lifted the ladder up and down and up and down ... helping many people climb out of the smoke-filled rooms," Kim told AFP Saturday, adding the nameless hero drove off as soon as firefighting trucks and a helicopter arrived at the scene.

The driver's wife, pointed out by relatives and friends of victims, told AFP "he did what he had to do" and refused any further comment.

Another witness praised nurses and doctors who ran around the smoke-filled building to evacuate patients. Three of the nine medical staff on duty at the time died in the fire.

"Some nurses were running around the dark hallway barefoot, screaming 'Fire! Everybody get out!', not even realising their shoes have come off," the witness who only gave her surname as Chung told AFP.

"They were crying, saying some of their colleagues are still trapped inside ... but they didn't stop evacuating patients first," said Chung, who was visiting the hospital altar room to mourn her grandmother who had died a day earlier and was just metres away (yards) when the fire broke out.

Surveillance camera footage inside the hospital, aired on local TV stations, showed nurses and doctors frantically running along hallways that were engulfed by dark smoke within minutes.

"The nurses were coughing heavily and their hands were bloody ... it looks like they were injured while helping people evacuate," she said, adding one male medical worker also rushed into the smoke-filled hospital with a fire extinguisher in a desperate bid to put out the raging fire.

"I didn't see him again ... I'm not sure if he's alive or dead," Chung said.

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