Officials in the city of Kaohsiung said at least 41 people were injured.
The fire started early Thursday morning local time. A statement by the fire department described it as "extremely fierce." Flames and smoke poured from the lower floors as firefighters tried to control the fire.
The number of dead rose during the day as rescue workers searched the building which combined businesses and homes. By late afternoon, officials confirmed 32 people had died, while 14 people, who showed no signs of life, were among 55 taken to the hospital. In Taiwan, official confirmation of a death is made at the hospital.
Firefighters could be seen spraying water into the middle floors of the 13-floor building. One woman, who was not identified, said on Taiwanese television that her 60-to-70 year old parents were still inside as rescue efforts continued.
Taiwan's Central News Agency reported that officials said the building's age and waste blocking many areas made search and rescue efforts more difficult.
Many of the people living in the 40-year-old building were retired and lived alone in apartments as small as 13 square meters, local media reported. The building had 120 living spaces on the upper floors. It also had a closed movie theater, disused restaurants and karaoke businesses below them, the Central News Agency said. Mayor Chen Chi-mai said the building was partly abandoned.
The United Daily News, a major newspaper, said fire extinguishers had been put in place last month. But there were only three on each floor because the residents could not pay for more.
The fire appeared to have started on the ground floor.
Investigators were examining a first-floor tea shop whose owner reportedly fought with his girlfriend the day before. They had not ruled out that the fire may have been set on purpose, The United Daily News reported.
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