South Korea's worst fire disaster since 2008

A fire breaks out in an eight-storey fitness centre in the South Korean city of Jecheon, killing at least 29 people.
Television footage showed the building consumed by orange flames and issuing dark plumes of smoke. Some people were seen jumping from the building onto air mattresses laid out on the ground.
Television footage showed the building consumed by orange flames and issuing dark plumes of smoke. Some people were seen jumping from the building onto air mattresses laid out on the ground.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Blaze at fitness centre building in Jecheon spread quickly, leaving many unable to flee

SEOUL • At least 29 people were killed and 26 injured yesterday in a major blaze at a fitness centre building in the South Korean city of Jecheon, officials said, in one of the country's deadliest fire disasters.

The fire broke out around 4pm local time and quickly engulfed the entire eight-storey building, leaving many trapped inside.

Twenty victims were found at a public sauna and others elsewhere in the building that houses a fitness centre, public bath and restaurants, the National Fire Agency said.

"The fire produced so much toxic smoke so quickly, leaving many people unable to evacuate," an agency spokesman said.

Many victims appeared to be unaware of the fire raging outside the bathhouse until it became impossible to flee, he added.

The death toll may rise further as firefighters continue to search the building, the spokesman said.

Television footage showed the building consumed by orange flames and issuing dark plumes of smoke as several people stood waiting to be rescued from an outdoor terrace.

Some were seen jumping from the building onto air mattresses laid out on the ground as dozens of fire engines and more than 100 firefighters rushed to the scene.

The blaze - believed to have started in a parking space on the first floor - has been mostly put out, the fire agency said.

Jecheon city is located in the North Chungcheong province in central South Korea, about 170km south-east of the capital Seoul.

Television footage showed the building consumed by orange flames and issuing dark plumes of smoke. Some people were seen jumping from the building onto air mattresses laid out on the ground.
Television footage showed the building consumed by orange flames and issuing dark plumes of smoke. Some people were seen jumping from the building onto air mattresses laid out on the ground. PHOTO: YONHAP

It is home to scenic mountains and lakes, and is popular with local tourists.

The disaster forced organisers of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to cancel a planned torch relay event at the city today, 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.

The fire is South Korea's worst since 2008, when a blaze at a warehouse in the city of Icheon killed 40 workers.

South Korean President Moon Jae In expressed regret over the accident and urged officials to make "utmost efforts" for rescue and search operations, his office said.

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.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2017, with the headline 'S. Korea's worst fire disaster since 2008'. Print Edition | Subscribe