- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, Feb. 18 (UPI) — Fifty-two people were confirmed dead Tuesday in a crowded South Korean subway train and another 171 people were unaccounted for after an arson attack in Daegu, the nation's third-largest city, police said.

The number of confirmed dead was expected to rise as rescue workers fought their way underground to reach the victims through toxic clouds of black smoke and heat. Media reports suggested the number could exceed 130.

One woman told the Korea Times her 21-year-old daughter called her from the burning train in a panic.

"She only said that there was a fire and the train door wasn't opening, so I told her to just break open a window and get out," Kim Bok-sun, 45, said. But when the mother tried to call back moments later, "she never answered the phone."

Police described a 56-year-old former taxi driver who lit a milk carton filled with flammable material identified as paint thinner and threw it into a subway train car at Chungang-ro station. The blaze, triggered at 9:55 a.m., spread to a second six-carriage train when it pulled into the station a few minutes later, the Korea Times added.

According to statistics from Daegu's anti-disaster office, the injured as of Tuesday night totaled 138 people in nine area hospitals, mostly for burns and smoke inhalation. Among them was the suspect, Kim Dae-han. Police apprehended him about two hours after the incident and transferred him to the hospital at Kyungpook National University to treat his burns.

"We are investigating the suspected arsonist," a police spokesman told United Press International by telephone. The officer refused to say if the man was linked to any terrorist organization or whether he was acting alone. However, another officer said Kim was suffering from mental illness. Another account said Kim was angry about being disabled from brain surgery he received last year for a stroke.

Park Kum-tae, a resident of Daegu, told reporters he saw Kim pull a bottle out of a black bag and strike a cigarette lighter. Park, who was being treated for second-degree burns, said he and others nearby fought with him but Kim managed to light it nonetheless.

Downtown traffic in the city of 2.5 million came to a stunned halt as ambulances and fire trucks rushed to the station's entrance. Clouds of black smoke billowed onto the street, blinding and choking drivers and pedestrians and hampering the firefighters' efforts to reach the underground station.

South Korean and U.S. army units also pitched in to help rescue victims, the Korea Herald reported.

Toxic elements in the smoke, rather than the flames themselves, were the likely cause of most casualties. Firefighters also said they feared others might have suffocated before they were even able to escape the subway cars.

"We don't know exactly how many passengers have been affected," the police spokesman said, adding as many as 600 passengers were aboard the train when the fire started.

Most of the stricken victims were being treated for smoke inhalation.

"They were seriously injured," said a medical staff member at Kyungpook National University Hospital's emergency room.

Lee Keun-sik, the minister of Government Administration and Home Affairs, pledged to mobilize all possible personnel and equipment for rescue and repair operations.

In 1995, a gas explosion in a subway construction site in Daegu killed 101 people and injured 143 others.

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