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Illegal renovations made Miryang blaze worse

Feb 01,2018
Authorities found that the Sejong Hospital in Miryang, South Gyeongsang, where a fire on Friday killed 39 and injured more than 150, illegally renovated the building multiple times and that the local city government had turned a blind eye to such practices for years.

Local media reported that when firefighters got to the scene on Friday, they had on hand a blueprint of the building that was 13 years old.

There were at least 10 changes to the building in that time. The blueprint showed a fire door on the first floor, which doesn’t currently exist.

“Had there been a fire door on the first floor to stop toxic gas and smoke from traveling up the building,” said Kim Han-soo, head of the investigative bureau of Gyeongnam Provincial Police Agency in South Gyeongsang, “this could have significantly reduced the number of casualties.”

Between 2005 and 2018, an external corridor was built on the second floor to connect it to a nursing hospital. Police said this corridor prevented the smoke from escaping the building. No patient of the nursing hospital was affected by the fire.

The renovations total 147 square meters (1,582 square feet), which is some 10 percent of the total area of Sejong Hospital. They include the nurses’ changing room on the first floor, where witnesses said the fire began, which is not shown in the 2005 blueprint.

The local fire department reported the illegal renovations in January 2011, after finding them in a regular checkup, but the Miryang city government did not report the illegalities to police until July 2014.

“We gave the hospital three years to correct its actions and levied an enforcement fine of 15.8 million won [$14,795],” said a Miryang city government official. “Reporting them to authorities was one of many actions we could take in 2011 when we found out. Later in our investigations, we found that the hospital had illegally renovated the building around 2006 and we decided to report the hospital in 2014.”

Police said they could not take disciplinary action against the hospital because the five-year statute of limitations on violations of the Building Act had passed after 2011.

Some critics have also pointed out how the city government or local fire department failed to detect the illegal renovations between 2006 and 2011, which include the corridor between the two buildings that can be seen easily from the outside.

Authorities are investigating if there were any favors promised or delivered between the hospital and city government in those years.

The hospital in 2014 had also illegally built a funeral center near the Sejong Hospital.

“The statute of limitations still stands for that case, so we will be investigating it further,” said a police officer.

The local health center had also reported in 2014 that the Sejong Hospital was in violation of the Medical Service Act.

“The act states that for a hospital with less than 200 patients, there needs to be at least one doctor and two nurses on duty,” said a prosecution official in Changwon Prosecutors’ Office, “but Sejong Hospital often had on duty just one nurse or one nursing assistant at a time.”

The president of the hospital, Son Kyung-cheol, who also heads the management company Hyosung Medical Foundation, which runs Sejong Hospital and the nursing hospital next to it, was fined 1 million won at the time.

But the situation did not improve. According to medical records in 2016, the hospital has a daily average of 74 inpatients and 135 outpatients, which requires the hospital to have at least six doctors and 35 nurses on full-time, according to the Medical Service Act. The hospital has on full-time three doctors and six nurses.

The local health center examined the hospital every year since 2014 but did not report the violation to authorities again.

“We check the number of staff on duty by examining the hospital’s records,” said an employee of the local health center in charge of inspecting the Sejong Hospital. “It’s not easy to check physically if the hospital has enough staff on duty.”

BY WE SUNG-WOOK, CHOI EUN-KYUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]