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photo courtesy Maeil Shinmun

Devastation in Daegu

A tale of grief, loss and anger in the wake of a South Korean subway disaster

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I first heard at 1:00 p.m. on Tues., Feb. 18, three hours after it began. One of my students told me there was a fire in the Daegu Subway, and it had been started by an arsonist.

I have been living in South Korea for two months teaching in Gumi, a small city on the outskirts of Daegu. I was surprised by what my student told me that afternoon but didn't discover the gravity of the situation until I arrived home at 4:00 p.m. and began watching Korean news on TV.

The TV broadcasts showed the streets of Daegu in disarray as thick black smoke billowed out of subway grates. At 9:53 a.m. Kim Dae-Han, a 56 year-old man, allegedly pulled a container of liquid from his duffle bag as train 1079 pulled into the Jungangno Subway Station in downtown Daegu. Witnesses say Kim began fumbling with a lighter. Passengers tried to stop him, but he lit the container of flammable fluid and tossed it. The car, one of six on the train, caught fire and the plastic interior began to burn. The crew and passengers began to flee.

Minutes later, and for reasons only now becoming clear, a second train, number 1080, approached the station and stopped alongside the burning train 1079. This second train quickly caught fire and began to burn as well. The thick toxic smoke quickly filled the station and the levels above making escape nearly impossible. Those who made it out while the air was still bearable were fortunate.

As of today, nearly 200 people have been declared dead as a result of the fire. Another 346 are still reported missing, and although police believe the number to be inflated, the death toll continues to rise. Daegu, along with all of South Korea, is in a state of deep shock and mourning. While the death of family members is one of the greatest pains people anywhere can experience, it is more so in Korea. Family ties are of the utmost importance here, as Korean society has many Confucian and Shamanistic influences.

Brian Min describes losing a spouse, child, or parent as, "the three great tragedies" that Koreans can experience. The feeling of sadness that encompasses Koreans when they lose a loved one is described as "a sin against Heaven," explains Min.

Shortly after hearing of the fire, Min's best friend contacted him. He was worried about his wife and daughter. They were taking the Subway to University Hospital so his daughter could have an eye examination. He was unable to contact them. Min rushed to Daegu to help his friend. Upon calling his wife's cellular phone provider, their worst fears were realized.

"The cell phone company told us that a call had been attempted from Jungangno station at approximately the time of the fire," Min says.

Many other passengers on the trains contacted loved ones. Lee Seon-young, a 20-year-old student at Yeongjin College, telephoned her mother, Jang Gae-sun, from the train after the fire broke out.

"She said, 'Mom, there is a fire in the subway and I can't breathe,'" reported Mrs. Jang to the JoongAng Daily. Lee tried to talk to her mother but was unable to breathe. The call ended with "I love you mother."

A distraught couple at the scene of the fire reported they had received a call from their son. "Forgive me for leaving before you," were his last words.

I visited the site of the fire on Saturday to pay my respects and was shocked at the devastation. The subway is three stories underground. One level below the street is an underground shopping arcade. I could smell the awful smell of burnt plastic at street level as I approached the station. I was taken aback as I walked down the steps to the arcade. The once white, sparkling interior of the tunnel was now pitch black with soot. The floors and walls were lined with thousands of white flowers, and family members had scratched messages into the soot-stained walls.

Walking down another level, I could see melted subway signs, indicating how intense the blaze was. The walls, the turnstiles; everything was pitch black. Walking yet another level was like walking onto the set of a horror movie. Days after the fire the air smelled so strongly of fumes that it was difficult to breathe. Rubble from the ceiling and train lined the platform and crunched as I walked. The place seemed incredibly dark despite the excess of lights that had been installed to allow us to pass through.

Walking along the platform gave me an idea of the fear and hopelessness felt by those attempting to escape the blaze. Imagine trying to get from the basement of MacEwan Student Centre to the top floor in the dark, while being choked by toxic smoke with every breath.

As I walked, columns of South Koreans passed along the platform, silently placing flowers on the floor and tracks. It was amazing how many lives were touched by this one event. In a country that is so incredibly close-knit and family-focused, it will take a long time for the scars to heal.

Today police announced they had arrested Kim Dae-Han for arson and manslaughter. Kim, who apparently has a history of mental problems, told police he had been planning to commit suicide but in his depression decided to start the fire instead. He allegedly made threats in the past to burn down a hospital that he believes gave him shoddy treatment.

Most Koreans are not focusing their anger at Kim. In the wake of revelations that up to 90 per cent of those dead were in the second train, many want to know why the train was not stopped before arriving at the station, and why it did not proceed once it realized the severity of the fire.

Police have said they will seek arrest warrants for nine subway officials who will be charged with negligence, including the drivers of the two trains. The driver of train 1079 is being accused of not promptly reporting the fire. Officials in the Subway Control Centre allegedly ignored the fire alarm that went off in the station. Traffic control officers apparently did nothing about the fire until 9:55 a.m., although it could easily be seen on security cameras. They also did nothing to stop the second train--traffic on the subway was not stopped until a full 23 minutes after the fire started.

Investigators describe their actions as "serious criminal negligence."

Choi Sang-yol, the driver of the second train, is accused of fleeing the train and taking the master control key with him. By removing the control key, Choi cut power to the train, leaving the doors closed and trapping the passengers inside--leaving them to die. Choi also brought the train into the station when the fire was clearly visible and failed to drive through the station without stopping.

While this was a case of arson, the blame for the exasperated death toll must be distributed among those who are charged with the safety of the passengers on the subway. It is unacceptable that a fire started with a small container of volatile liquid was allowed to reap such destruction. Daegu is not a third-world metropolis with a rickety old subway line. This is a modern city; this subway transported thousands during the World Cup last year. What if such an event had transpired then? Korea would never have been able to regain face in the international community.

Investigations found the subway cars were comprised of highly flammable fabrics and plastics. There were no sprinklers in the train, and fire fighting equipment in both the station and cars failed. While this was not a terrorist act, South Korea is a nation in an incredibly vulnerable geopolitical position, and is still officially at war with North Korea. If such devastation resulted from such a simple act, one shudders to think what could have come as the result of a calculated move.

This is not, however, a story without heroes. Following the fire's outbreak, two engineers guided passengers through the dense smoke to the street. In an unthinkably selfless act, they then descended back into the dark to help others.

They were never seen again.

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