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South Korea

7 dead and 11 injured after blaze rips through low-cost housing facility in Seoul

  • The building, which had no sprinklers, mainly housed manual labourers and it is unclear whether the smoke detectors worked
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 11:56pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 November, 2018, 1:49am

A fire that likely blocked a crucial exit at a low-cost dormitory-style housing facility in central Seoul killed at least seven people and injured 11 others on Friday.

Officials from the Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Headquarters said it was possible that the death toll could rise.

The fire probably started near an exit door on the building’s third floor, Kwon Hyeok-min, chief of Seoul’s Jongno District Fire Station, told reporters. The facility’s residents were mostly manual labourers who made their living doing odd jobs, he said.

“It was dawn and the exit door was likely blocked, so it would have been difficult (for the residents) to escape,” Kwon said.

It was dawn and the exit door was likely blocked, so it would have been difficult to escape
Kwon Hyeok-min, fire chief

Another official from the Jongno station said the facility, which was built in 1983, did not have sprinklers because current safety regulations cannot be retroactively applied to older structures. The official, who did not want to be named, citing office rules, said it was unclear whether the building’s smoke detector worked.

The facility, called “goshiwon” in Korean, is where poor workers relying on construction jobs or student preparing for bar exams or civil service exams stay in individual rooms with tiny sleep and study spaces. Budget travellers also often stay in such facilities.

South Korean media reported that most of the victims were manual labourers in their 40s to 60s. The fire agency could not immediately confirm the reports. It was not known whether any young students or travellers were staying there.

The facility was located on the second and third floors of a three-storey building, where the fire agency said all the victims were found. Its first floor has restaurants.

South Korea, one of Asia’s richest economies, has struggled for decades to improve safety standards and change widespread attitudes that treat safety as subservient to economic progress and convenience.

Forty-six people died in January when a fire ripped through a small hospital with no sprinkler systems in the southern city of Miryang. It was the country’s worst fire since 2008, when 40 people died at a refrigerated warehouse in Icheon, near Seoul. Twenty-nine people were killed in a building fire in Jecheon in December of last year.

The fire broke out around 5am in the three-storey building located near the centre of the capital and was brought under control two hours later, according to the police.

Authorities believe it was likely caused by a heating appliance in a room on the third floor.

About 50 people are believed to have been living in rooms on the second and third floors, in which no sprinklers were installed.