Families of fire victims blame tight schedule

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Families of fire victims blame tight schedule

Families of the four workers killed and 25 injured yesterday blamed a tight schedule for the blaze at a National Museum of Contemporary Art construction site in central Seoul.

Yu Taek-sang, who lost his brother, claimed it was a man-made tragedy that could have been avoided, saying some workers were installing combustible urethane insulation as others were welding under pressure to speed up construction.

“I worked along with my brother at the basement site until Tuesday last week, so I know what it was like down in the basement,” said Yu. “The construction company kept urging us to hurry the work to finish the job by February, and I am convinced welding was going on while workers were spraying urethane coating in the basement.”

A spokesman for the victims’ families told reporters yesterday that there were no fire extinguishers and only two emergency exits were available for the underground levels, where the fire started.

GS Engineering & Construction, the builder for the Seoul branch of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, denied that any welding was going on while insulation was being sprayed.

“The company is confident to say there was no welding work in the basements where the fire started,” said Kim Se-jong, the construction group’s director.

“Nighttime work took place to avoid working during the rainy season, not to finish the construction on a schedule that was impossible to meet,” he said “The company decided to proceed with the schedule to finish the construction by early next year after thorough feasibility assessments.”

Despite the company’s denial, experts say the 20-month construction schedule was too inadequate.

“Even a main architectural designer for the art building voiced his concerns for the 20-month period and pleaded for more time,” said Seung H-sang, CEO of architecture company Iroje, who presides over a committee in charge of public projects in Jongno, central Seoul. “Given that the construction site is located near the palace and the sheer size of the construction zone, the project should have been given four years, not 20 months.”

The plan to build the National Museum of Contemporary Art’s new building was announced by President Lee Myung-bak in January 2009 and construction began in June 2011 through the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

The site engulfed in flames yesterday symbolizes the country’s political and cultural hub, dating to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The dynasty’s royal library and the office in charge of managing the tasks of royal family once occupied the space. The location also was once the site of the military hospital that received the body of President Park Chung Hee after his assassination by his long-time subordinate in 1979. The Defense Security Command, which used to maintain the dictatorships of Park Jung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan, was located there as well.

Police and fire authorities continued their investigation yesterday to determine the cause of the fire and whether violations of safety regulations occurred. “The results of the probe will come out later this week,” said a police official.

By Kang Jin-kyu, Lee Jeong-bong [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]
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