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Typhoon Maemi Subsides After Claiming 77 Lives in S. Korea

September 14, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — The death toll from the most powerful typhoon to hit South Korea in almost a century climbed to at least 77 today as victims were pulled from beneath mud, landslides and flood waters. An additional 36 people were reported missing in the storm, which struck over a Thanksgiving holiday that is normally one of the most joyous times of year.

Flash flooding from Typhoon Maemi drowned more than a dozen people who were celebrating in a basement-level karaoke bar in the southeastern city of Masan. A taxi driver was crushed to death when winds of up to 135 mph blew a boat from the beach onto the roof of his taxi.

Along the east coast, in Ulchin, a landslide buried an extended family of 22 that had gathered for Chusok, the Korean Thanksgiving. They were sleeping at the time. All were rescued except for an 11-year-old boy.

"Wouldn't it have been better if God had taken an old man like me and not my young grandchild?" his grandfather, 73-year-old Jang Su Bok, wailed to Korean television from his hospital bed.

"I thought I was going to die," said Choe Dok Hee, a middle-aged woman who escaped from another house buried in a landslide nearby. "Then I saw a small hole with light coming through it. If it hadn't been for that hole, I wouldn't have made it."

On the island of Cheju, off the south coast, a sailor died after his leg was severed by a rope as he was trying to tie up his barge.

The storm, which dumped 17.8 inches of rain in some places, disrupted transportation, forced the closure of many of the nation's airports and caused blackouts.

At their height, power outages left 1.47 million homes without electricity. Authorities halted operations at some nuclear power plants and refineries as a precautionary measure.

Late-summer typhoons are an annual occurrence in the coastal regions of South Korea. The name Maemi means cicada in Korean. The Korean Metrological Administration termed it "the most powerful typhoon in terms of wind speed since we began compiling weather records in 1904."

Last year's Typhoon Rusa killed more than 100 people in South Korea.

Maemi hit the southeastern coastal areas of the Korean peninsula Friday night before subsiding Saturday. It missed the capital, Seoul, almost entirely. There were no immediate reports of any serious problems in North Korea.

The hardest-hit city in South Korea was the port of Pusan, which was struck by high waves.

"Pusan destroyed in just three hours," screamed a headline from South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

Huge cranes at the container port were toppled like dominos, one of them crashing into a fire engine. A chic floating hotel was tipped onto its side. A 50-year-old man was swept off his balcony.

The city's oceanfront aquarium was badly flooded. Experts estimated that damage to Pusan was likely to exceed $7 million. But an accurate assessment was difficult because of the power outages and transportation problems.

"Damage figures will mount once a thorough investigation is made after the power supply returns to normal," an official at the government's disaster-prevention headquarters told reporters Saturday.

Jinna Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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