Roof collapse at college initiation kills 10 people
One of the victims was a 25-year-old student who returned to the scene of the accident to help fellow students escape.
According to the North Gyeongsang Fire Service Headquarters, the roof of the gymnasium at Mauna Ocean Resort collapsed at 9:06 p.m. Monday, while 556 students from Busan University of Foreign Studies were having a welcome party for incoming freshmen students in the southeastern city of Gyeongju, 370 kilometers (229 miles) from Seoul.
Nine of the casualties were students and one was a 43-year-old man who worked for an event organizing company contracted by the students.
While 445 students got out of the building safely, 115 other people were trapped inside under falling debris, including three staffers of the school and the event organizer. At 9:36 p.m., rescuers arrived at the disaster site. At 11 p.m., they confirmed that the accident had claimed three lives. At 2 a.m., the death toll rose to 10.
Eight of the students killed in the accident were 19 years old, while one was 25.
According to the fire service authority, two students are in critical condition and 103 suffered minor injuries. Although rescue work was still ongoing as of 5:00 p.m. yesterday, the authority didn’t think any more students were trapped in the building.
The rescue operation was hampered because the collapse occurred late at night and it was still snowing. Rescuers also feared an additional collapse of the structure and had trouble getting to the resort, which is at an altitude of 500 meters (1,640 feet) and is located at the top of Mount Dongdae.
Roads to the resort were covered with snow.
The police said that the collapsed building had only one exit for trapped students and added that they will look into whether the building failed to meet safety standards. They said there was an accumulation of 50 centimeters (19.6 inches) of snow on the gymnasium’s roof at the time of the collapse.
“A collapsing roof panel hit my head while I was running toward the exit,” recalled Park Young-oh, an incoming first-year student. “I got back on my feet and started rushing again with my friend, thinking I would die if I stayed there.”
The eldest of the victims, Yang Sung-ho, 25, actually got out of the collapsing building safely. But when he realized a large number of classmates were still trapped inside, he went back to help them. Yang’s body was found hours later under steel debris and was transferred to Busan Baptist Hospital, where a memorial altar was set up. He was studying Burmese at the school.
“People who were with Yang at the time of the collapse told me he went right back inside after he was told that there were first-year students still trapped,” said a friend of Yang.
Some parents of the victims criticized the school for “blatant irresponsibility” in allowing the event to be held at the resort. The emotions of the parents were hardened by the fact that there were no teachers at the event.
Political figures, including Saenuri Chairman Hwang Woo-yea; Jun Byung-hun, floor leader of the Democratic Party; and independent Ahn Cheol-soo, visited the mourning altars at a hospital in Ulsan.
Public Administration Minister Yoo Jeong-bok paid a visit to the site of the collapsed building at 5:30 p.m. yesterday.
“It is very regrettable that such an accident took place,” Yoo said. “I convey my deepest condolences to victims’ families.”
Upon learning of the accident, Busan University of Foreign Studies set up an emergency center as well as joint memorial altars for the dead. Chung Hae-lin, head of the school, bowed before cameras, apologizing to students affected by the collapse and promising the school’s full assistance in recovery and compensation.
The prosecution and the police has formed a special investigative body to look into the accident.
The fact that there was a thick layer of snow on the roof of the gymnasium prompted questions as to why Kolon, the resort owner, did not remove it ahead of the welcoming ceremony. Many universities’ student councils hold such welcoming events ahead of the academic year that begins in March.
They often choose rural retreats far away from their campuses for two-day programs to let incoming students meet their older schoolmates.
The police said they will ask Kolon officials if they were negligent.
Authorities are not ruling out the possibility that the building was not properly constructed in 2009.
Yonhap News Agency reported that the building was never inspected by government officials since it was built because its size was 1,205 square meters (12,970 square feet), short of the 5,000-square-meter size subject to safety inspections.
With criticism growing over the fatal collapse, Kolon issued a public apology titled “We apologize with a deep bow,” and it promised compensation to families affected by the accident.
“We feel a great sense of responsibility for the lives that were lost [on Monday night], especially for those whose lives had yet to blossom in their college years,” said the company.
Kolon Chairman Lee Woong-yul said the company will soon have talks with victims’ families to settle on compensation. Kolon, which has 38 affiliates, is the country’s 30th-largest conglomerate.
President Park Geun-hye also expressed her condolences to the victims and their families during a Blue House meeting with senior secretaries yesterday and ordered a through probe into the tragic accident.
“My heart aches over an accident that has claimed many lives,” she said. “I order you [public officials] to find out what caused the accident and inspect other buildings in the east coastline areas hit with heavy snow in recent days.”
BY KANG JIN-KYU, CHA SANG-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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