[VIEWPOINT]Safety hardware needs softwareBefore Korea was hit by financial crisis in 1997, a deputy prime minister described the fundamentals of the Korean economy as “sound and strong.” What did he mean? Were the financial structure and governance of Korean businesses sound and strong? Were Korea’s financial institutions free of bad debts? Was Korea’s labor market flexible and trouble-free?
Before the outbreak of the Daegu subway tragedy, if someone asked the Daegu mayor or other high-ranking officials whether the Daegu subway was safe, they might have assured you, “Yes, of course, the Daegu subway is safe and sound.” There were fire extinguishers in all cars; closed-circuit cameras to monitor platforms; fire alarms and special ventilation systems to vent toxic gas and smoke, and controllers and emergency task teams ready to tackle all types of contingencies.
Like the Korean economy before financial crisis, the Daegu subway had all the standard safety facilities. Then what was lacking? What was the real cause of this terrible catastrophe? There was a central control center, but controllers did not know what to do; drivers were not trained; employees in charge of alarm systems were negligent of their duties, and passengers had no information on safety arrangements or escape routes. One thing is clear ― the Daegu subway employees were not trained to deal with the outbreak of a fire.
In the meantime, network TV stations have been reporting on the police investigations of the cause of the catastrophe. The reports highlighted a grave mistake by the driver of the second train, who escaped the cab with the master control key, leaving the doors of four train cars closed. Scores of lives were lost because of that. The investigation also disclosed the misjudgment of those in the central control room and those in charge of security alarms. There are reports of a disgusting cover-up attempt by senior subway executives.
No doubt there were grave mistakes and negligence by subway employees, and they should be accountable for errors and omissions that led to the loss of so many lives. But is pinning the blame on these people all that is required to straighten out the “safety last” culture of Korea? Was human error the main cause of tragedy?
In New York, a determined arsonist threw three incendiary shells into a subway car. Scores of people were hurt but no one was killed. In 1995, a Japanese religious sect launched a carefully planned terror attack in Tokyo subway stations. The use of sarin gas was designed to commit mass murder of commuters during rush hour. But although more than 4,000 passengers were exposed to the toxic gas, only 15 died. What made such big difference between Daegu’s subway incident and the others?
Even if a Japanese subway driver had made a similar mistake, there would not have been so many casualties. First, Japanese passengers would have managed to open the car doors manually and followed the escape routes. Subway personnel would not have fled the accident scene but would have made emergency escape announcements, opened the car doors, showed the routes to safety and left after confirming that nobody remained trapped inside the carriages.
How do we know that the Japanese would have responded well? On the next day of the Daegu accident, the Japanese public network NHK-TV broadcast a program on subway safety. It reminded viewers where fire extinguishers and emergency lights were located and how to open doors manually. It repeated safety instructions for dealing with underground fires.
If the Daegu subway had had an integrated safety system and if the employees had been trained, they could have organized rescue operations guiding passengers to escape routes.
Like the Korean economy before the crisis, safety hardware in the Daegu subway was good. But there was no software to activate its safety facilities.
* The writer is opinion page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo