South Korean subway attack kills 124 people, injures more

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

DAEGU, South Korea -- Forensic experts gathered scorched bodies and blackened bones for identification Wednesday after a fiery subway attack that killed 124 people and injured about 140 others.

Teams made a final look for victims in the subway station where a man who police say has a history of mental illness lit a container filled with an unidentified flammable liquid Tuesday, sparking a fire that incinerated two trains.

"Because people could have hidden to escape the smoke, last night we did a final search but we have found nothing," Daegu Mayor Cho Hae-nyoung told reporters early Wednesday.

Two gutted subway trains were towed to a maintenance station where dozens of forensic experts combed through ashes, melted steel beams and other debris of the country's worst tragedy in years. Families of the missing thronged the site.

The fire started about 10 a.m. when a man lit a container of flammable liquid and tossed it. The blaze incinerated two six-car subway trains, killed at least 124 people and injured 145, one-third of them seriously.

27 bodies identified

On Wednesday, authorities said about 300 people were also reported missing but added that the number was inflated.

"That doesn't mean that all of them were killed yesterday," said disaster official Koo Bon-kun. "People just report their family members who did not return home."

Only 27 of the dead have been positively identified.

Also Wednesday, forensic experts gathered scorched human remains for identification as rescuers returned for one last effort to search for the missing.

"People could have hidden to escape the smoke, last night we did a final search but we have found nothing," Daegu's mayor told reporters.

A suspect who police say has a history of mental illness was under interrogation. Police said they did not know what motivated the attack or what substance the attacker used to start the blaze.

The fire began in one train at a station, igniting seats and the plastic floor before spreading to another train, officials said. More people died in the second train because many of the doors failed to open, trapping passengers.

Police were investigating subway officials. One officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the fire crippled the communication system, and subway officials apparently could not warn the second train of the fire.

YTN TV news channel reported the second train arrived four minutes after the fire started.

Many bodies were burned beyond recognition. Officials said they would have to wait for DNA tests to confirm the number of dead, which could take weeks.

Other people died of asphyxiation on the train platform. One man said his missing daughter called by mobile phone to say there was a fire and the subway door wasn't opening.

Firefighters gave horrifying accounts of the scene underground. Many bodies were found on the subway stairs, where people apparently suffocated as they tried to escape. On the platform and in the trains were the ashen bones of those trapped in the flames.

Chung Sook-jae, 54, rushed to the scene after her daughter, 26-year-old Min Shim-eun, telephoned her husband to say she was choking. Then the line went dead.

"She never caused any problems. She was a good kid. Why does this have to happen to her?" Chung cried. "If she's not out by now, she's probably dead. What am I going to do if her body is all burned out of recognition?"

Toxic gases

Officials said that the fire was put out by 1 p.m., about three hours after it started, but toxic gas from the fire delayed rescue efforts, according to the Yonhap news agency. The acrid odor of burned plastic wafted over the scene hours after the flames were extinguished.

Police were interrogating Kim Dae-han, 56, who witnesses said carried the carton into the subway car, police Lt. Kim Byong-hak said. Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the suspect had been treated for mental illness in the past.

Authorities and witnesses said the attacker took out the carton and tried to light it with a cigarette lighter. Passengers moved to stop him and a scuffle broke out. He finally lit the box, and it exploded into flames.

YTN aired footage of the frantic scene inside a hospital, showing nurses attending to a man who reportedly was the suspect. The man sat frowning on a bed wearing a hospital smock, his face and hands smudged with soot.

YTN, without citing sources, also reported that the suspect worked as truck driver and had once threatened to burn down a hospital where he had received unsatisfactory treatment.

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