Moon visits scene of deadly S. Korea fire

Investigators in the gym destroyed by fire in Jecheon yesterday. The fire left 29 dead, most of them women who were trapped inside a sauna on the second floor of the building.
Investigators in the gym destroyed by fire in Jecheon yesterday. The fire left 29 dead, most of them women who were trapped inside a sauna on the second floor of the building.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

President comforts mourners as public anger grows over reports of building's problems

SEOUL • South Korean President Moon Jae In comforted mourners in the small scenic city of Jecheon yesterday amid growing public anger at how fire ripped through an eight-storey building, killing at least 29 people, most of them taking a sauna.

All but one of the victims have been identified, including 20 women who were overcome by toxic fumes in the second-floor sauna, Jecheon fire chief Lee Sang Min said.

"Our crew on the scene said the lockers in the facility were installed like a labyrinth and it's a glass building with few windows, which apparently made way for the smoke from the first floor to quickly fill up the second floor," Mr Lee said.

Consoling family members, Mr Moon said he was devastated, and promised a full investigation.

"The government as a whole will thoroughly probe this accident's cause and process of response, and although after the fact, the investigation and measures will be such that, at least, there will not be lingering deep sorrow."

Mr Moon's predecessor, the ousted Park Geun Hye, had been widely criticised for her slow and ineffective response to the Sewol ferry tragedy in 2014 in which more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, drowned.

Anger mounted at reports of shoddy construction, broken doors and other problems that may have contributed to the deaths. Experts said the blaze evoked comparisons with London's Grenfell Tower disaster in June that killed 71 people.

Press reports said a glass door leading to the sauna had not been working properly for more than a month, and that emergency stairs were often used for storage.

Investigators are still trying to find the cause of the conflagration, but are focusing on a first-floor parking lot, Mr Lee said. "There were cars parked on the first floor, and as they were burning, a large amount of toxic gases was released."

Tragic stories began to emerge as victims were identified.

One man told Yonhap news agency that he lost his mother, wife and daughter. Another said he received a phone call from his trapped wife as she coughed in the gathering smoke, but he was later unable to reach her again.

Jecheon's mayor said the city, which is south-east of the capital Seoul and is popular for its mountains and lakes, was considering a mass funeral and planned to cover most of the costs.

Organisers called off a leg of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games torch relay in Jecheon on what should have been a day of celebration ahead of the games.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2017, with the headline 'Moon visits scene of deadly S. Korea fire'. Print Edition | Subscribe