Daegu (South Korea): Shocked South Koreans pressed authorities yesterday to explain why so many people died in a subway arson attack in this south-eastern city.
At least 126 commuters died and more than 340 people were missing a day after fire spread rapidly to plastic and other fittings, reducing two subway trains to charred skeletons.
At the centre of the controversy is why the doors on the burned out trains were left shut even as the fire and billowing smoke spread.
Among the many chilling final cellular telephone conversations published in South Korean newspapers was one of a schoolgirl who told her mother: “I’m at Joongangro station. There is a fire, but they won’t open the doors.”
Photographs and survivor accounts raised questions about how authorities responded to the fire and why the fire was so intense.
When fire-fighters finally put out the blaze after several hours, they found the blackened shells of two trains, charred bodies and a thick layer of ash containing bone fragments.
Officials and witnesses said a man lit and tossed a milk carton of flammable liquid into a train at the tail end of the morning rush hour.
Flames engulfed the train in minutes, rescue officials said.
The fire jumped across the platform to a second train, which had pulled into the station minutes after the first one caught fire and sat for 20 minutes with its doors locked, rescuers were quoted as saying.
The number of deaths was thought to be higher in the second train.
South Korea has one of the worst traffic and industrial safety records of any advanced economy.
South Korean television showed footage of the driver of the second train being questioned, his jacket pulled up to obscure his face and declining to talk in the presence of cameras.
Local media reports said the driver had kept the doors shut to prevent toxic fumes from the burning first train from getting into the carriages.
Other reports said an automatic fire detector cut off the power supply to the subway.
Media reports also raised questions about the speed at which materials on the trains burst into flames.
A Daegu newspaper published two photographs taken by a female passenger from the second train who survived the blaze.
Passenger Ryu Ho-jung’s photographs showed seven bewildered passengers sitting in a car filling with smoke at its far end, some covering their mouths and looking at the source of the smoke.
One man in the picture was dialling his cellphone. The fate of those passengers is not known.
In an explanation accompanying the photographs, YTN television said people in train cars nearest the flames were aware of the disaster and able to flee, while those at the other end of the train were overcome by fumes before they were aware of what happened.
Investigators had not announced findings 30 hours after the tragedy, but South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap news agency published a list of factors that may have raised the death toll.
They included a power shutoff that turned off the emergency lights and closed nearly every door on the two trains, the absence of a sprinkler system and questions about how the drivers coped with the emergency.
Daegu mayor Cho Hae-nyoung said on Tuesday a 56-year-old man with a history of mental illness was suspected of starting the blaze.
Domestic media said the suspect, a former taxi driver disabled by a stroke, was under intensive care in a Daegu hospital.
At a makeshift memorial centre about a kilometre from the site, relatives gathered through the night, many furious at city officials.
“No one explained what had happened 12 hours after the fire,” an elderly man said.
“Money is the culprit. I lost my son because he is poor and he had to take the subway to commute,” said Kim Hye-sook, 56, who said her 22-year-old son was missing.
Yonhap news agency said 84% of the dead were either elderly or women.
Rescue official Lee Hyong-kyun said the fire ignited seats and floor tiles.
“There would have been hardly any time to escape,” he said.
South Korean Prime Minister Kim Suk-soo promised help.
“The government will try its best to console people victimised in the accident,” Kim said in Daegu.
Police said the man accused of igniting the fire wanted to kill himself along with many others.
Insight into the accused arsonist's possible motive came amid concerns that shoddy safety precautions and security measures may have made the death toll worse.
Had the train been equipped with fire-resistant seats and floor tiles, critics said, it would not have burst into flames. And an apparent lack of safety lighting left victims groping in the dark once the lights went out.
“This incident shows we have a big hole in our social safety measures,'' said an editorial in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper. – Agencies
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