Six Seoul Firemen Perish When Building Collapses

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Six Seoul Firemen Perish When Building Collapses

A fire at a two-story residential house in Hongje-dong in northwestern Seoul killed six firefighters and seriously injured three others in the predawn hours Sunday.

The nine men entered the building at about 4:30 a.m. after extinguishing the blaze. They had hoped to rescue an unaccounted-for resident. Immediately, the building collapsed on them.

Six residents of the house had escaped as soon as the fire broke out. The missing resident, the son of the building's owner, was later found in the area.

The Seoul Metropolitan Fire Department dispatched some 200 firefighters and equipment to the site after learning of the building collapse. Using forklifts and a bar cutter, the crew re-moved a 3-meter-high pile of debris and severed iron rods to reach the bodies of the dead and to rescue the living firemen.

They pulled the last from the rubble at about 7:30 a.m. All three of the injured men remain in critical condition.

The burned building was a decrepit house built in 1971. The firefighting effort was made particularly difficult by a number of cars parked in the 6-meter-wide alley in front of the house.

Seon Deok-chi, 65, who owns the house, told police that she had been warned to flee by her son. Running to the second floor, she saw smoke rising from the first floor.

Police believe the 31-year-old son, who has been hospitalized in the past for mental disorder, set the fire. They are questioning him after locating him at around 1:30 p.m. at a nearby house belonging to a relative of Mrs. Seon.

The dead firemen came from various backgrounds.

Kim Chol-hong, 38, had volunteered to transfer to the Hongje fire station in order to earn more money to pay for his mother's hospital expenses. Firefighters at small stations earn 400,000 won ($320) more per month than those at larger divisions for handling miscellaneous chores.Mr. Kim's mother, who had lived in the southern part of the country, suffered a stroke last October. Mr. Kim has been taking care of her since last fall at his house in northwestern Seoul.

Park Joon-woo, 32, another of the victims, was scheduled to marry his fiancee in a week. Weeping, the fiancee, Chang Mi-kyung, showed reporters the cell phone message she had received from Mr. Park the night before the fire. It read: "I'll always care for you."

Kim Ki-seok, 44, another of the dead, became a firefighter in 1995 because he wanted to "serve people." Unable to afford college, Mr. Kim had entered the Navy at the age of 17. While in military service, he completed high school at night and entered Wonkwang University in 1985. Before becoming a firefighter, he taught children at camp facilities.

His 4-year-old daughter, not yet comprehending the meaning of death, kept consoling her mother, saying, "Mom, don't worry. Dad's only gone to work."

Park Dong-kyu, Park Sang-ok and Chang Seok-chan were also among the dead.

The leadership of both the ruling and opposition parties visited the hospitals where the victim's bodies were placed to pay their respects.

Elsewhere, another fire killed 10 family members in Segok-dong in southern Seoul at 4:40 a.m., also on Sunday. Police said the family, who lived in a greenhouse-like structure, died from inhaling toxic gas after their home was set on fire.

by Park Sung-woo

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