At least 46 people have been killed and another 41 injured after a fire broke out at a decades-old mixed commercial and residential building in the Taiwanese port city of Kaohsiung, officials said.

Neighbourhood residents said the 13-storey building was home to many poor, elderly and disabled people and it was not clear how many of the 120 units were occupied.

Witnesses said they heard something that sounded like an explosion at about 3am on Thursday when the blaze erupted in the building’s lower floors, which housed a closed cinema, abandoned restaurants and karaoke clubs.

Taiwan Fire
Firefighters battle the blaze (EBC/AP)

Lin Chie-ying said she was woken up in her home across from the fire by the sounds of ambulances and fire engines.

“I thought our home would burn up too,” she said.

The apartment building is one of many in the Yancheng district, an older part of Kaohsiung, a city of some 2.8 million people in south-western Taiwan.

“For the families and Yancheng, I feel incomparable pain and I blame myself deeply,” said mayor Chen Chi Mai at a news conference, bowing in apology. “Here I want to express my deepest sorrow to all the wounded and those who died, as well as their families and all the residents.”

Firefighters battle the blaze
Firefighters battle the blaze (Huang MinghsiungAP)

It took firefighters until after 7am to extinguish the blaze. Many of the upper floors appeared not to have been damaged directly.

Late in the day, the smell of smoke still lingered throughout the area and the sound of shattering glass rang out. Construction workers were raised on a crane to break out the remaining glass from window frames with a crowbar to remove any further hazards.

Throughout Thursday, first responders searched the wreckage and recovered dozens of bodies. Another 14 of 55 taken initially to hospital were confirmed dead on arrival or shortly after.

The building’s age and piles of debris blocking access to many areas complicated search and rescue efforts, officials said, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.