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Terminally ill patient detained after claiming to start lethal hospital fire

TAIPEI--A terminally ill cancer patient has been taken into custody after confessing to having set a fire in a room in a government-run hospital in southern Taiwan Tuesday that left 12 dead and 60 others injured, prosecutors said yesterday.

The Tainan District Court granted a request by prosecutors to detain the 69-year-old unmarried man, surnamed Lin, at around midnight Tuesday because he was suspected of committing murder and endangering public safety.

The Tainan Prosecutor's Office said Lin, a colon cancer patient who has been hospitalized in the long-term care ward at the Beimen Branch of the Department of Health (DOH)-run Sinying Hospital in Tainan since late 2010, was reported missing after the pre-dawn fire was put out.

Police discovered Lin in an empty house near the hospital Tuesday afternoon. He told police that he set fire to tissue paper, a quilt and some clothes with a lighter and threw them into an apparel storage room on the hospital's second floor at around 3 a.m. Tuesday.

Prosecutors said they decided to hold Lin in custody pending further investigation after scrutinizing surveillance footage that showed a likely time match.

Lin is Moody and Agitated: Manager

Police said that during questioning, Lin attributed his arson attack mainly to “feeling bad and unhappy.”

Wu Cheng-tse, a manager of the long-term care ward, said Lin is from a low-income family.

“Lin is sane and usually gets along well with the staff, but he did become moody and agitated at times,” Wu said.

The flame allegedly set by Lin was extinguished in less than an hour, but it caused heavy casualties, in part because most patients in the ward were seriously ill and unable to move on their own, with some even relying on machines or tubes to stay alive, firefighters said.

According to data compiled by the Tainan City Government's Fire Department, four patients suffocated from heavy smoke in the hospital ward while the eight other casualties died on the way to nearby hospitals.

58 Patients under Treatment

Fifty-eight other patients, who suffered mainly from smoke inhalation, are still receiving treatment at 13 medical institutions in Tainan and neighboring Chiayi County, a DOH official said, adding that 12 of them are staying in normal wards and the remaining 46 are in intensive care units.

Two other injured patients were released from hospitals after receiving treatment, the official said.

The Sinying Hospital's Beimen Branch specializes in caring for mental patients and chronic disease sufferers who are unable to take care of themselves.

Second Floor Run by Private Contractor: Hospital

The first floor of the four-story building houses various outpatient departments, the second floor houses a long-term care unit that cares for severe and chronic disease patients, the third floor is empty, and the fourth floor accommodates mental patients.

A Sinying Hospital spokesman said the ward on the second floor, which had 70 patients before the fire, has been operated by a private contractor for the past seven years.

“We had long planned to operate it on our own once the 10-year contract expires,” the spokesman said, adding that the hospital's management deeply regrets the tragedy.

He said the hospital plans to hold a joint funeral for the 12 patients killed in Tuesday's blaze.

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