SEOUL (AFP, REUTERS) - Flammable materials on the outside of a South Korean building fuelled a major blaze that killed at least 29 people, experts said on Friday (Dec 22), evoking comparisons with the Grenfell Tower disaster in London.
The fire engulfed an eight-storey tower in the southern city of Jecheon, killing 29 people and injuring 29 more. Twenty of the dead were found at a sauna and others elsewhere in the building, which also houses a fitness centre and restaurants.
President Moon Jae In visited the site on Friday and received a report on the accident and the rescue efforts.
Jecheon’s mayor told reporters the city was considering a mass funeral and planned to cover most of the costs.
Famous for its mountains and lakes, Jecheon is about 120km south-east of the capital Seoul.
The disaster forced organisers of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to cancel a planned torch relay event at the city on Friday, Yonhap news agency said, citing the organisers.
"We decided to cancel the event to mourn the victims," an unnamed official at the organising committee was quoted as saying.
All but one of the victims had been identified, including 20 women who were overcome by toxic fumes in a second-floor sauna, Jecheon fire chief Lee Sang Min said.
"The female sauna has a large toughened glass wall and no windows," he told journalists.
An eyewitness told Chosun Ilbo: "People trapped inside were screaming for help. I couldn't bear to watch."
The fire chief said: “Our crew on the scene said the lockers inside 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."
Investigators were still trying to find out the cause of the conflagration, but were focusing on a first-floor parking lot, he said.
Tragic stories began to emerge as victims were identified. One man told the 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 was later unable to reach her again.
Barber Kim Jong-Su, 64, was working at the men’s sauna – one floor above the women’s facility – when the fire alarm went off.
“I saw flames and smoke outside the windows,” he said. He stayed at the premises for around five minutes, helping a dozen customers to safety down an emergency staircase – many of them in their underwear – before he was hospitalised with smoke inhalation.
Experts said the structure was a fire trap waiting to happen, with insufficient emergency exits, flammable finishing materials and illegally parked cars blocking access to fire trucks.
Local media said the maze-like interior of the facility made it more difficult for people to escape the fire.
Street surveillance video footage showed orange flames and black smoke billowing from the ceiling of a ground floor parking lot underneath the stilted building, which stood on pillars.
The fire spread quickly upwards along the outside walls of the tower, which contained cheap but highly flammable finishing materials.
"There were three or four exploding sounds and I saw the fire on the ground floor quickly jump upwards along the outside walls," said one eyewitness.
The blaze is believed to have started in a vehicle that was parked on the ground floor. It took only seven minutes for the entire building to be engulfed in smoke and flames. Other vehicles in the carpark under the building also ignited, fuelling the blaze.
Firefighters took around two hours to put out the fire.
Engineering Professor Chung Sang Man at Kongju University said the tower had cladding materials made of a cement and foam sandwich, which are widely used for insulation but prone to spreading fire.
"Inflammable finishing materials have been a great source of problem in major blazes," he said, citing the Grenfell Tower inferno in June that killed 71 people, among others.
The London fire started with a faulty refrigerator on the fourth floor of the building owned by the local authority, but rapidly spread up the 24-storey tower, which had new cladding on the outside.
In the wake of the disaster, hundreds of similar buildings across Britain were subjected to safety checks, and some residents were evacuated as a precaution.
The painstaking process to identify all the remains took months and anger is still simmering among the survivors, with most awaiting permanent housing and voicing scepticism about an official inquiry.
On Friday, experts said stilted buildings such as the Jecheon fitness centre are especially vulnerable to fires that begin on the ground floor as staircases act like smoke stacks, making flames spread upwards quickly.
Toxic fumes and flames were sucked rapidly upstairs to reach the first floor sauna, suffocating victims who had no escape but a narrow smoke-filled exit.
Some were seen jumping from the building onto air mattresses laid out on the ground as dozens of fire trucks and more than 100 firefighters rushed to the scene.
Thursday's fire is South Korea's worst since 2008 when a blaze at a warehouse in the city of Icheon killed 40 workers.
The worst fire ever to hit modern South Korea was an arson attack on a subway station in the south-eastern city of Daegu that left 192 people dead and nearly 150 injured in 2003.