- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

DAEGU, South Korea Fire spread through two crowded subway trains in South Korea yesterday after a man ignited a carton filled with flammable material, killing about 120 people and injuring at least 138, officials said.
A suspect with a history of mental illness was being interrogated by police in Daegu, the country's third largest city. Police did not know what motivated the attack or what substance was used to start the blaze.
Many of the injured were in serious condition, authorities said.
The fire started in one six-car train at a station, igniting seats and spreading to another train that had stopped there, officials said.
Lim Dae-yoon, chief of Daegu's east district municipal government, estimated that about 120 people had been killed. "We believe the death toll will not rise drastically from that," Mr. Lim said.
Many bodies were burned beyond recognition. Officials said they would have to wait for DNA tests to determine the death toll. That could take weeks.
Many died of asphyxiation on the train platform. One man said his daughter, who is missing, had called by mobile phone to say there was a fire and that the subway door wasn't opening.
Firefighters spoke of bodies of victims asphyxiated as they tried to escape up the stairs and of the platform strewn with the charred bones of those trapped.
Chung Sook-jae, 54, rushed to the scene after her daughter, Min Shim-eun, 26, called her husband to say that she was suffocating. Then the line went dead.
"She never caused any problems. She was a good kid. Why does this have to happen to her?" Mrs. Chung said, crying on the pavement near the scene. "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?"
Police were interrogating Kim Dae-han, 56, who witnesses said carried the milk carton into the subway car, according to Kim Byong-hak, a police lieutenant in Daegu. Another police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the suspect had been treated for mental illness.
"When the man tried to use a cigarette lighter to light the box, some passengers tried to stop him. Apparently a scuffle erupted and the box exploded into flames," the officer said.
Authorities said the fire was put out by 1 p.m., about three hours after it started, but toxic gas in the tunnel delayed rescue efforts, the Yonhap news agency reported. The odor of burned plastic lingered over the scene hours after the flames had been extinguished.
The television station YTN aired footage of the chaos inside a nearby hospital reportedly showing the suspect being attended to by nurses. The man sat frowning on a bed, wearing a hospital smock, his face and hands smudged from soot.
Yu Heung-soo, a police sergeant in Daegu, said the suspect had been burned in both legs and the right wrist. But a doctor told YTN that the man's only injury was toxic gas inhalation.
YTN, without citing sources, also reported that the suspect worked as a truck driver and had once threatened to burn down the hospital where he had received unsatisfactory treatment.
In the minutes after the fire began, thick black smoke billowed out of the subway's ventilator shafts. Downtown traffic came to a standstill as ambulances and firefighters wearing oxygen tanks rushed to the scene.
Kim Bok-sun, 45, said her daughter, 21-year-old Kang Yeon-ju, was on the burning train and had called in 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," she said. She called her daughter back a few minutes later, "but she never answered the phone."
Rescuers brought the victims up to the street in stretchers and slid them into ambulances. One witness detailed the terrifying scene inside the subway as the fire ignited.
"The man kept flickering a lighter and an old man told him to stop. The man dropped the lighter and the train caught fire," an unidentified male survivor told YTN. "Several young men seized him, but the fire spread and black smoke rose. Then everyone rushed out."
President Kim Dae-jung ordered the government to consider designating the accident site as a special disaster zone, which would give it priority in receiving government aid and other assistance.
Daegu, formerly spelled Taegu, was one of the 10 World Cup soccer venues last year. It has a population of 2.5 million.


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