Making this country safer
June 29 marked the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store. Air conditioning units crashed through the ceiling of the luxury retailer in a posh southern Seoul neighborhood, killing 508 people. The name stands as a painful epithet for Korea’s shameful shadow behind its rags-to-riches miracle - recklessness, negligence, corruption, shady deals and irresponsibility
The greedy owner defied regulations and expert warnings, recklessly renovating and refurbishing the building into a department store with an additional floor. Columns already overburdened grossly beyond their capacity and original design were removed to make more retail space. Cracks showed on the walls before the crash, but executives ignored the signs. The stunned society solemnly promised to pay more attention to safety. Seoul citizens could not believe all the modern look and comforts they enjoyed were illusory, even though the accident came just a year after a bridge over the Han River gave away during the morning rush hour.
How many more innocent lives must be sacrificed for society to learn? Statistics showed that building structure collapses increased even after the Sampoong disaster. Collapses totalling 261 in 2010 surged to 401 in 2013. A resort building crashed last year, killing 10 people. An office-residential building in Asan, South Chungcheong, had to be torn down because it tilted to one side before it was finished.
To prevent building accidents, the chain of irregularities - collaboration in bids, multi-layered subcontract arrangements, bribery connections and slack supervision, as well as poor construction and maintenance - must be broken. The government and local authorities must monitor safety more strictly. The government, however, keeps watch on just 0.7 percent of buildings across the nation. The rest are monitored by their owners.
Accidents cannot be avoided if the owner or constructor places his or her own interests before the public. Stricter regulations and systems are needed to enforce tough scrutiny from the design and construction to license and maintenance.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 30, Page 30