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Subway fire investigation focuses on mistakes
DAEGU, South Korea -- A subway conductor apparently fled a burning train without opening the doors for his passengers, leaving dozens of them to die, South Korean police said Friday.
At least 133 people died in the Tuesday fire, which engulfed two trains and was started by a man who later told police he was trying to kill himself.
Most of those who died were killed in the second train. The conductor of that train, identified only by his last name, Choi, told police he thought that the doors were open as fire engulfed the cars Tuesday and that passengers had evacuated, so he took the key used to control the doors and fled to safety.
But police said that of the six cars in the train, the doors were open on only two of them, meaning that dozens of passengers were left behind, trapped in raging flames and toxic smoke.
The fire erupted in a train stopped at a downtown station, then spread to the train Choi was driving when it entered the station.
Investigators are considering filing negligence charges against Choi and nine other subway officials, chief police investigator Cho Doo-won told reporters. Police cast doubt on Choi's assertion he did all he could to save lives.
"The driver is saying that he worked for more than 10 minutes to make sure the passengers could escape, but we don't think that was the case," said Cho, the chief police investigator.
Subway doors can be individually opened by pulling a lever under the seats. Trains have signs giving instructions, but passengers were either too panicked to notice the signs, or it was too dark to read them.
Investigators were trying to learn why subway controllers allowed Choi's train to pull in to the station after the fire ignited on the first train.
Once in the station, Choi saw black smoke seeping into his cars and his passengers choking and said he tried to pull out of the station. But the electricity had gone out.
According to a transcript of communications between Choi and subway officials, train operators hesitated for five minutes, possibly thinking it would be better to try to restore electricity and move the train out of the station.
The driver told police that he finally decided to evacuate his train and opened the doors -- though police say the doors apparently remained shut. Some victims called their relatives by mobile phone in panic and said the doors were not opening.
Daegu officials said the ashen remains of 79 people were found in the second train. Sgt. Yoon said over 50 were found in two of the four cars whose doors did not open.
Many victims were burned beyond recognition, and authorities had identified only 46 victims so far.
The 56-year-old suspect, identified as Kim Dae-han, has a history of mental illness and was intent on committing suicide, police said.
Witnesses said the man used a cigarette lighter to ignite a container filled with gasoline or another flammable liquid. The fire quickly spread through the six-car train.
Officials said 146 people were injured in the attack. They said 388 people still were unaccounted for, though that number was inflated by double-reporting and other clerical errors.