The disaster happened around 6pm, when the Sampoong department store in Kamnang, a residential district in southern Seoul, was crowded with evening shoppers.
"You can hear them crying for help down there," one fireman said. But within a few hours, rescuers said, they feared many of those trapped were already dead. "Scores of people are still buried, but in view of smoke coming out of the rubble, most of them would have died of suffocation," an army sergeant said.
Only half of the building was left standing after a 300ft-long section of the five-storey structure collapsed in seconds. The cause appeared to be poor construction, although there was earlier speculation about a gas explosion. According to witnesses, cracks had been noticed throughout the day. Hours before the collapse, guests in a store restaurant said gas had been switched off, apparently because the management had already detected problems.
A store employee said an emergency meeting of the store's management was called but no steps were taken to close the building. Police said a meeting to discuss repairing the damage was taking place when the building collapsed.
"I felt the building wavering, and moments later, several store employees rushed down from upper floors," Han Junk Suk told KBS-TV. O Sang Yong, a cook in the restaurant on the fifth floor, described how he evacuated customers when a gaping crack appeared in the wall. "When I had got the customers out, I left by the walkway to the next building,'' he said. ''There were three loud bangs in succession, then a rumbling sound and I was thrown down."
The injured, many of them crushed, bleeding and unconscious, were dragged out and relayed to ambulances before billowing smoke from an underground fire and a strong smell of gas drove rescuers back. A thousand people were estimated to have been inside the collapsed portion of the building. Remote-control cameras tracking through the rubble showed people trapped by beams and girders. Most of the victims were believed to be staff and housewives shopping for dinner.
As night fell, rescue workers using cranes worked under spotlights to free the dozens of survivors in the basement.
The building, near one of the busiest junctions of the city, was built in 1989.