Subway inferno

Shanghai Star. 2003-02-20

GRIEVING South Korean families waited desperately on Wednesday for word on up to 300 people feared incinerated in a subway arson attack that killed at least 125.

As forensic experts took up the grisly task of identifying victims, lists of the missing offered varying numbers and bereaved relatives clung to the hope that even a bone or tooth from their loved ones could be found.

A senior fire official said it would take months to identify many of the people killed when flames and smoke engulfed two crowded subway trains in an arson attack on Tuesday in Taegu, 200 km (120 miles) southeast of Seoul.

The hopelessness hit home for about 300 families of the missing gathered in a Taegu auditorium to watch a videotape of the fire scene provided by forensic experts that showed the burned-out shell of train cars littered with ash and bones.

"There's nothing left," shrieked an elderly woman. "Where can I find the body of my son?" she said above the sobs of hundreds like her.

"Personal identification will take a considerable amount of time and I cannot tell you right now how long it will take," a forensic investigator told the group.

Taegu city government spokesman Lee Jae-uk told reporters the official count listed 300 people missing - even more than the 280 tallied by the families in the auditorium.

"There must be some double-counting, but 300 missing people have been registered," he said.

The official tally posted at the emergency centre was 53 identified dead, 72 unidentified remains, 146 injured and 305 missing.

Anger, dismay

Some of the bereaved condemned city officials for being slow to share information and scolded news photographers taking pictures, while in Seoul there was handwringing about lapses in a country with one of the worst traffic and industrial safety records of any advanced economy.

The Korea Times lamented an "absolute lack of safety education" for people in emergencies. "The passengers could not do anything except panic with no one attempting to use the fire extinguishers placed under the seat," it said.

Other dailies raised questions about the speed at which materials on the trains burst into flames and an apparent lack of communication equipment and alarms - some of the many safety issues likely to come up after the disaster.

Cho hae-nyoung, the mayor of Taegu, said on Tuesday a 56-year-old man with a history of mental illness was suspected of starting the blaze at the end of the morning rush hour.

Domestic media said the suspect, a former taxi driver disabled by a stroke, was under intensive care in a hospital in Taegu.

Television showed security film of a man with something ablaze in his hand and bystanders trying to take it off him.

A witness said what the man was holding was a milk carton filled with a flammable liquid which he tossed into a carriage full of commuters.

Officials said a second train pulled into the station as the first train burst into flames. Up to 400 people were aboard the trains, each with six carriages which have been towed away so forensic experts can examine the remains of the victims.

Tearful family members were given partial access to the shells of the trains, where almost everything had been melted by the intense heat and the stench was hard to bear.

'Mother, there's smoke everywhere'

At a makeshift memorial centre about 1 km (half a mile) from the site, grief-stricken family members gathered through the night, many lashing out at city officials.

"No one from the city administration came out to explain 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 per cent of the dead were either elderly or women.

The inferno reduced the trains to metal skeletons and sent black, acrid smoke belching into the sky for hours. Television footage showed rescuers covering up charred bodies in the ash and soot-filled carriages, a burnt shoe lying among the wreckage.

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 victimized in the accident," Kim said in Taegu.

Many world leaders also sent their condolences.

"Our prayers with the people of South Korea during this time of sorrow", President George W. Bush said in a message relayed by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also expressed condolences.

One man, whose wife was trapped by the inferno, told South Korean television he had received a desperate call from her mobile phone.

"Help me," he quoted her as saying. "There's a fire on the subway. The door is locked."

It was a heart-wrenching call others also made in a country where even small schoolchildren carry mobile phones.

Telephone firms were helping people find out if their relatives had been on the trains by tracing cell phone signals.

The single subway line runs through the central part of Taegu, a well-established centre for the textile and dyeing industry as well fashion. A second subway line is being built.

More than 100 people were killed and another 100 injured in a gas explosion on Taegu's subway line in 1995.

(Agencies via Xinhua)

Copyright by Shanghai Star.