Taiwan Couple Is Suspected of Negligent Homicide in Building Fire


CHIAYI, Taiwan — Taiwanese prosecutors said that a couple were suspected of setting a fire and negligent homicide after 46 people were killed and dozens of others injured last week in the island’s deadliest building blaze in more than two decades.

The prosecutors accused the 51-year-old woman, who was identified only by her surname, Huang, of failing to extinguish an incense coil when she left the 13-story mixed-used building in the southern port city of Kaohsiung early Thursday. The 52-year-old man, surnamed Kuo, was accused of failing to remind Ms. Huang to put out the incense.

The unattended coil, which was in her room on the building’s first floor, sparked a blaze that quickly engulfed the higher floors, making it difficult for the residents — mostly poorer and older people who had been asleep at the time — to escape.

The authorities zeroed in on the couple, who are partners, on Friday. Ms. Huang was detained after being interrogated, while Mr. Kuo was freed on about $2,000 bail, prosecutors in Kaohsiung said. The two have not yet been formally charged.

Ms. Huang “should have paid attention to whether the flame was fully extinguished, but she was negligent and did not fully do it,” according to a statement posted on Monday by the prosecutors.

The couple could not be reached for comment. It was unclear if they had lawyers.

Ten years ago, Ms. Huang was sentenced to seven months in prison by a court in Kaohsiung for having two teenagers throw petrol bombs in a debt dispute, according to the government-backed Central News Agency.

In Taiwan, a conviction on recklessly setting a fire can bring up to one year in prison, and negligent homicide carries a penalty of up to five years.

The fire’s death toll — the second-highest of any building fire in Taiwan since 1995, when a blaze broke out in a karaoke club in the central city of Taichung, killing 64 — has raised broader concerns about lax safety standards in the island’s aging structures. The once-prosperous building in Kaohsiung’s waterfront district, built in the 1980s, was partly abandoned and had deteriorated rapidly in recent years.

The blaze also highlighted the lack of support for poor and older people who are desperate for housing and often have no choice but to live in dilapidated buildings.

Among residents it had become known as a “ghost building.” Piles of garbage had accumulated on lower floors and in the stairwells, which fire officials said had accelerated the spread of the fire and impeded rescue efforts.

At the time of the fire, the building was inhabited by squatters, gamblers, sex workers and older and poorer people. The average age of those killed in the fire was 62.

On Monday, Taiwan’s interior minister, Hsu Kuo-Yung, ordered local officials to create an inventory of all the island’s older buildings within one month, and to complete inspections of the public safety and fire facilities of such structures within three months. In Kaohsiung alone, at least 34 older buildings have already been identified by the authorities as “high-risk.”

The island’s Ministry of Health and Welfare also said over the weekend that it had ordered local governments to step up services for older people living alone in Taiwan. The country’s population is aging rapidly, and an estimated one in five citizens will be older than 65 by 2025.

The social department of Kaohsiung’s government has also said it would give $3,200 to each household affected by the fire to help with resettlement efforts.

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