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200 dead, missing in Daegu arson

Subway rider said to ignite blaze in car

Feb 19,2003
At least 200 were killed or missing and about 138 were injured yesterday when a man identified as a mental patient allegedly set fire to a Daegu subway car.

The fire started at about 9: 55 a.m. in one car of a six-car train that was stopped at the Jungangno station of the Daegu subway line No. 1.

According to witnesses, Kim Dae-han, 57, who was in the fifth car of the train, pulled out flammable materials from his bag and set them afire, using a lighter.

"When the riders saw him trying to set a fire, they tried to check him, but he managed to get the fire going and then ran away," said a witness.

The fire spread to all the cars of the train and then jumped to another six-car train that had stopped on the opposite track. Both trains blazed up within moments, after which the fire continued to burn the subway platforms and three floors of the station.

The trains and the station turned into a hellish inferno, with poisonous gases, a power blackout and panic among subway riders desperate to escape. The fire was put out at about 1:30 p.m. by more than 1,300 fire fighters.

The Daegu Police were still trying to get an accurate count of the dead last night. They recovered 52 bodies but said dozens more were still in the subway cars. About 155 people are unaccounted for. Because the accident site was a charred mass of wreckage, the police were having difficulty extracting corpses. The 138 persons listed as injured were sent to eight nearby hospitals. Some are believed to be in critical condition, and may add to the death toll.

Most of the dead were locked inside the trains and suffocated by poisonous gases, the police said. The fire also appeared to have caused great damage to stores at the station, but an estimate of the loss has not been completed.

Mr. Kim survived the fire and was detained as an arson suspect. According to the police, Mr. Kim, who was a taxi driver, showed symptoms of mental illness and had been treated from 1999 to 2002. He was also paralyzed on the right side of his body, police said. They quoted family members as saying that Mr. Kim blamed his paralysis on faulty medical care and had threatened to set fire to a hospital.

Mr. Kim gave no reason for the arson, police said. They said he was disorientated and difficult to interrogate. He received minor burns in the fire and was admitted to the Kyungpook National University hospital.

"Patients with depression, especially those who are men in their 50s, often turn violent," said a psychiatrist, Oh Kang-seob, at the Kangbuk Samsung Hospital.

Experts say that fires are a risk on Korean subway trains, because fireproof materials are not used, and materials on the trains, when ignited, easily release strong poisonous gases.

Emergency safety measures had not been emplaced in the Daegu subway. When the fire broke out, riders were locked in the cars and were unable to open the doors manually, experts said. The police, furthermore, determined that sprinklers were not installed inside the station. They said the absence of the sprinklers would have contributed to aggravating the accident.

"The damage from the accident seems to have been aggravated, because the emergency system of the subway did not work properly," said Yoon Myeong-oh, of the University of Seoul.


by Hwang Sun-yoon


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