Victims of Taiwan water park fire fight to survive

2015-07-27 19:12


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Taipei - Sean Chang recalls bright yellow fire ripping through the crowd at the water park, where hundreds of young people had come to seek respite from a hot summer's day.

"I'm now so easily terrified by seeing yellow lights," Chang said from a hospital bed in Taipei, where he is receiving treatment for the third-degree burns covering 50% of his body.

The 25-year-old former professional Taekwondo athlete had gone with friends to escape the seasonal heat at the Formosa Water Park in New Taipei, where organisers had also put on a dance party.

"After playing in the water, we approached the concert stage to dance. When something exploded in the air, I turned my head over my shoulder looking back. My eyelashes were immediately burnt," Chang said from a burn ward at the Tri-Service General Hospital in Taipei.

Coloured powders which were scattered in the air to create a party atmosphere had ignited, scaring hundreds of partygoers. The worst, however, was still to come. 

An investigation found that someone had allegedly used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames on the stage, but unwittingly dispersed sparks which ignited a layer of the cornstarch powder on the dance floor.

"The floor was suddenly on fire. People were screaming and desperately running. Many tumbled over and I jumped over someone. My legs soon started feeling pain. Then I saw the skin on my burnt legs falling off," Chang said.

Along with some others burnt by the fire, Chang was thrown into a swimming pool nearby to cool down. 

"I felt like I was in hell. The water turned blood red," Chang said.

Roads too narrow for ambulances

Roads inside the park were too narrow for ambulances. Some burn victims were removed by emergency workers with stretchers, others on inflatables normally used in the water. Three hours later, Chang was taken to hospital.

Over the following three weeks, Chang went through several operations to remove dead and infected tissue, and his sleep has been haunted.

"He sometimes yells 'Fire! ... fire ... run quickly!' in his sleep," his mother, Chang Chih-Ying, said.

She said she quit work to be by her son's side.

Hundreds shared Chang's experience. About 500 people were hurt in the fire, many of them young Taiwanese, but also visitors from Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, China, and the US.

One month on, the death toll stands at nine, with over 200 injured victims still in intensive care, including 150 in critical condition.

Imported skin from dead bodies

Immediate challenges faced by hospitals that day included the lack of burn wards and shortage of staff to handle emergencies.

Hou Sheng-Mou, president of Shin Kong Wu Ho-Su Memorial Hospital in Taipei, said he urgently recalled about 260 doctors and nurses on vacation to treat the 31 burn victims the hospital received.

The government imported specialised medical devices and more than 61m²  of skin from dead bodies to be used to help the wounds heal.

Hou said one patient was saved despite having burns over about 95% of his body. The 22-year-old man, surnamed Huang, accepted the doctors' advice to have his lower legs amputated to avoid the infections that are one of the main dangers in serious burn cases.

"We were inspired by visiting Japanese experts, who had decisively performed amputations to save at least five patients with burns over 90% [of their body]," Hou said.

On July 22, the first skin-grafting for Huang was conducted by Hou's medical team, with consultation from visiting experts from the US-based Johns Hopkins University.

Doctors said Huang would need at least six more grafting operations.

The ordeal has also taken a toll on over-worked medical staff, some of whom have come from other areas of speciality to help.

Psychological problems

"We do have psychological burdens, especially when we face burn patients in critical condition," said Dorji Ha, chief of the surgical intensive unit at Shin Kong Wu Ho-Su Memorial Hospital.

For parents, keeping their sons and daughters alive is the priority. "If an amputation was necessary, we would certainly take it," said Lin Wei, elder brother of a 20-year-old victim in a southern Taiwan hospital with burns over 90% of her body.

Lin's parents also stopped working in order to be by their daughter.

"We will help her cope with difficulties ahead, especially the moment when she sees her face in the mirror for the first time," Lin said.

The New Taipei City government set up a fund to help affected families. Private donations into the fund already exceed $32m. 

Despite such offers of legal and financial help and counselling, the burden has been too heavy for some.

The father of one victim who suffered burns over 20% of his body committed suicide on July 18. The father worried about the long-term financial burden of rehabilitation and other problems, police said.

The day after the fire, Taiwanese Premier Mao Chih-kuo banned the use of the coloured powder that ignited at Formosa.

But questions about the circumstances of the tragedy remain, and a month later, the precise cause of the explosion is still under investigation. 

Read more on:    taiwan
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