A fire swept through a hospital in northeast China killing at least 39 patients and forcing many to jump from windows or climb down knotted bedsheets to escape, state media said on Friday.
Yelling “catch, catch”, a nurse dropped a 12-day-old infant out the window of the second-floor maternity ward and into the arms of its father, the online edition of Huaxi Metropolitan News said.
Firefighters battled for more than five hours to put out the blaze at City Central Hospital, the largest in Liaoyuan city, Jilin province, late on Thursday.
Rescue workers found 24 bodies, the official Xinhua news agency and state television said.
“I saw people jumping out of windows and many of them were injured,” Xinhua quoted one unidentified witness as saying.
A total of 152 patients were evacuated, 15 of whom died while on their way or after they were transferred to other hospitals, media said.
There were no doctors or nurses among the victims.
The Huaxi Metropolitan News said about 100 people escaped by climbing down knotted bedsheets.
'I had to jump'
“I almost gave up hope. I couldn’t open my eyes and I couldn’t breathe. I had to jump. If I didn’t jump, I would have burnt to death,” Chen Zhifu told the newspaper after leaping from a third-floor window and breaking both legs.
The freezing evening air was torn by screams for help and weeping, said the newspaper, based in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
A policeman whose identity was unknown rescued nine people from the building before fainting and being taken away by medical workers, the paper said.
Hundreds of onlookers lingered nearby.
Police and government officials reached by telephone were tight-lipped about the blaze, raising questions about the alarm system and what staff were on duty at the time.
An estimated 70 hospital patients were unaccounted for as workers combed through the rubble at the four four-story buildings.
Dozens of people whose family members were missing registered with police in a room opposite. But one rescue worker said some patients may have returned home after escaping unharmed.
Second major accident
It was the second major accident to hit Jilin in as many months. An explosion at a chemical plant spilt 100 tons of cancer-causing benzene compounds into the Songhua river in November, but provincial authorities covered it up for 10 days.
Nearby Harbin city was forced to admit the toxic spill after a 10-hour delay. Water supplies were suspended for four days.
Initial investigation showed the hospital fire started in a power room, Xinhua said without giving a reason.
Provincial leaders rushed to the scene to oversee rescue operations. Fire engines from the provincial capital, Changchun, and nearby Yitong county were mobilized. Liaoyuan is about 75 miles southwest of Changchun.
President Hu Jintao, seeking to instil official accountability, sacked the Beijing mayor and the health minister in 2003 for initially covering up the SARS outbreak.
Hong Hu resigned as Jilin governor in October 2004, eight months after issuing a rare public apology over a fatal fire at a shopping mall that killed 54 people and injured 70.
In the first 11 months of this year, 222,000 fires broke out in China, down 5.4 percent from the same period last year, state media quoted an official of the Ministry of Public Security as saying.
In the same period, a total of 2,048 people were killed and 2,080 injured in blazes, down 11.3 percent and 26 percent respectively, the official was quoted as saying. Economic losses fell 10.2 percent to 1.23 billion yuan ($152 million).