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Survivors Recall a Fiery Horror

South Korean subway riders faced chaos amid flames and darkness. For victims' families, shock has given way to grief and anger.

February 20, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

TAEGU, South Korea — You descend a staircase thick with soot and the acrid scent hits you, burning your nose and throat even through a cotton mask. Down another level and you pass the ATM that has melted into a heap of plastic, with strips of the subway's metal ceiling dangling like tinsel over the tracks.

As in Dante's "Inferno," you have reached one of the lower circles of hell, where flames burned hotter than an incinerator, burning alive souls who had the misfortune to be riding the Taegu subway downtown at the end of the morning rush hour Tuesday.

Hwang Kyu Ja was one of those who lived through the conflagration. She was on her way to do an errand with her 5-year-old son when their train pulled into the station, just minutes after the blaze erupted in another train that had arrived from the opposite direction.

"The doors were closed. The lights went out," Hwang recalled as she recuperated Wednesday in a hospital bed that she shared with her son, both of them with oxygen tubes in their noses. "I don't know really how we got out. We were just pushed. We were the lucky ones."

Many did not make it out. As of this morning, 52 bodies had been recovered and tentatively identified; 72 bodies were believed to be in the wreckage but were burned beyond recognition; and more than 200 people remained unaccounted for.

In Taegu, South Korea's third-largest city, shock was rapidly turning to grief and then to anger. Relatives of those still unaccounted for questioned how the blaze could have spread so quickly and killed so many.

The fire was blamed on a mentally and physically ill passenger who officials said was trying to commit suicide by pouring a container of flammable liquid and then setting it on fire.

But ire was directed not so much at the arsonist -- identified as 56-year-old Kim Dae Han and now under heavy security in the same hospital as Hwang and other survivors -- as at the lack of fire-safety features and emergency measures in the Taegu subway system.

They questioned why the emergency lights failed, leaving passengers to grope their way out in pitch darkness. They questioned why the subway cars were replete with seat covers, ceiling panels and flooring so flammable that the fire leaped from car to car and across the tracks to the other train.

Many questions revolved around the second train, including why it pulled into the station next to the burning train instead of stopping on the tracks until the fire was put out. Survivors said that the doors of the arriving train opened only a few seconds and then shut, trapping them inside. Many on the train reportedly lost consciousness because of toxic fumes released by the burning plastics in the cars, and rescue workers' efforts were similarly hampered by the fumes.

"The doors opened and closed again immediately. It was dark. We couldn't see anything," whispered 36-year-old Choi Jang Yeol, her throat still burning after a narrow escape from the fire.

The conductor of the second train escaped and reportedly was being questioned by police about why he didn't leave the doors open so people could escape in the direction away from the fire. It is believed that most of the dead were from the second train, while the arsonist and most of those who were riding in the same car with him survived.

"Where were the emergency procedures? How could the conductor have escaped without a scratch when so many of his passengers died?" cried Min Sun Ki, yelling over the din of weeping relatives in a crisis center set up by the city. Min said that her 26-year-old niece had called home on her mobile phone from the subway to tell family members about the fire and has not been heard from since.

"Who would have thought something like this could happen on the subway?" Min said. "I used to be afraid of airplanes but never the subway."

Among the hundreds of people sitting on blankets in the basement of the crisis center who were awaiting word of their missing relatives was Chung Eul Kyo, 30, a construction engineer who has worked on the Taegu subway system and whose sister-in-law is among those missing.

"I understand that nonflammable materials are much more expensive, and my guess is that they wanted to save money," Chung said. "This is a very modern, attractive subway, but we would have preferred safety to looks."

Taegu authorities said they are having difficulty identifying the dead because the heat of the fire burned many bodies beyond recognition. About 70 skeletal corpses were said to be entangled in the wreckage of one subway car and will have to be identified through DNA testing.

Because of the timing and location of the fire, at 9:55 a.m. near the central shopping district, a disproportionate number of the victims were young female store clerks who were headed to their jobs at nearby department stores, which open at 10:30 a.m.

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