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Department store disaster remembered 10 years later

June 28,2005
In the summer of 1995, the eyes of the nation were on a 19-year-old girl who had been a part-time retail worker. After 17 days trapped under the ruins of the worst peacetime disaster in Korean history, Park Seung-hyun was rescued.
Today, she would rather forget it all.
“I don’t want to be known as the last survivor of the Sampoong disaster any more,” said Ms. Park, now 29. “I don’t want to recall the aching, hurting memories.”
Ten years ago today, on the afternoon of June 29, 1995, the five-story Sampoong Department Store in Seocho-dong, southeastern Seoul, suddenly collapsed, killing 502 people and injuring almost a thousand. The cause proved to be illegal design modifications and subpar materials used in the building’s construction.
Many of those who survived say their lives were changed. Two other young people, Choi Myeong-seok and Yu Ji-hwan, were trapped for 11 and 13 days, respectively.
Mr. Choi, 30, now works for GS Engineering and Construction, after having finished his university study in architecture and structural engineering. He works on a team that checks the structural safety of buildings, both existing ones and those under construction.
“I had a difficult time adjusting back to life after the disaster,” Mr. Choi said. “To gain my life back, I volunteered to join the marines. Now I cherish every day, trying to learn a lesson from the disaster.”
Ms. Yu, now 27, was known then as a cheerful girl who, soon after being saved from the ruins, joked that she wanted to date the rescue worker who pulled her out. She was married three years ago (not to her rescuer), and says she’s happy as a housewife.
The investigation of the collapse found that shoddy materials, and insufficient concrete and steel, had been used in the building’s construction. Design plans were repeatedly changed, and government officials were bribed. Cracks in the building had been ignored for months.
Perhaps most shockingly, on the day of the collapse, when signs of trouble were noticed, top Sampoong officials quietly left the building, as shoppers and employees continued to go about their business.
Lee Joon, who had owned the building, served seven years and six months in prison; he was released in 2003 and died later that year. His son, Lee Han-sang, once Sampoong’s president, served seven years in prison, after which he moved to Mongolia to do missionary work.
A rescue worker who saved lives after the collapse says Korea should have been better prepared, and said the country still hasn’t fully learned the lessons of Sampoong and the 1994 collapse of the Seongsu Bridge.
“In foreign countries, company chairmen take the lead in holding fire and disaster drills,” said Gyeong Gwang-suk, who led the Sampoong rescue team. “Korea has experienced the Sampoong and Seongsu Bridge collapses, but it’s still hard to find such practices.”
Mr. Gyeong said he suffered from nightmares for years. He currently works with the Seocho Fire Department’s disaster prevention team, educating rescue workers with a focus on underground emergencies.
Others also warn that the country needs to reinforce its regulations to prevent similar incidents. The Korean Structural Engineers Association issued a statement yesterday encouraging the government and the legislature to pay more attention to construction safety.
Families of victims created a scholarship fund to support children who lost parents and relatives. The Sampoong Scholarship Foundation was formed in April 2001; Daesang Group, which bought the site where the department store once stood, provided 600 million won ($590,000) for the project. Daesang built a residential and commercial high-rise on the site.
The scholarship foundation has been providing up to 1.4 million won annually to middle school, high school and university students among the family members of the 502 victims. To date, 144 students whose parents were killed in the disaster have benefited from the program.
Victims’ families will hold a memorial service today at the monument in Yangjae-dong that commemorates those who were killed. About 800 people are expected to attend the ceremony.


by Ser Myo-ja, Sohn Hae-yong


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