Korea fire kills 23 nursery children

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IN THE latest in a series of disasters to hit South Korea, at least 23 nursery school children died in a fire at a summer camp in Hwasung, 20 miles from the capital, Seoul. The tragedy confirms fears over South Korea's safety record, which is believed to be the worst in the industrialised world.

The fire started in the early hours of Tuesday in a dormitory made largely of wood, housing almost 500 children. Most of the victims died of suffocation; some were killed by the collapse of the building, while others died of burns.

The fire is thought to have been caused by an electrical short-circuit that started on the third floor of the building, where the children were sleeping. One of the workers at the camp, Chun Kyong Ja, said she saw sparks shortly before the fire and that the lights went out.

The conflagration spread rapidly to lower floors, sending hundreds of children fleeing in confusion. Teachers, who had been sleeping in a nearby building, watched helplessly as the flames consumed the building.

Kim Chae Hoon, a worker from the recreational centre, said the heat from the fire prevented adults entering the building, from where they heard children screaming out for their teachers . Six-year-old Kang Yu Jong, who was being treated in hospital for burns, said: "I woke up in the middle of the night because of the hot floor and I saw a piece of furniture in flames in the corner and the room was filled with smoke."

Kang Kwon Soo, the head of the kindergarten, which suffered the most casualties, was also staying at the camp. He said: "It was like hell on earth. A lot of students and teachers were rushing to escape the flames but they got in each other's way and fell to the ground. Some were screaming in horror, while others were crying from their injuries."

Some witnesses said that it took half an hour for the first firefighters to arrive at the scene. One man said that access to the camp was hampered by a narrow lane leading to the entrance.

A firefighter said the building had only two narrow staircases. Part of the structure collapsed as the firefighters, using 50 tenders, tackled the blaze, which took nearly three hours to put out.

Lists of the victims were posted at a hospital, where parents learnt of the fate of their children. One couple discovered that their twin grandchildren had died in the blaze. The bodies of some of the children were burnt beyond recognition; their remains were taken to a state forensic laboratory, where most of the dead were said to have been identified. Lee Won Tae, of the National Institute for Scientific Investigation, said the remaining bodies may have to be identified by DNA testing.

Parents have been outraged by police claims that the children were sleeping in the building unaccompanied. The police are also investigating reports that some extinguishers in the building were not in working order. By mid-morning the fire had been put out, giving way to scenes of heartbreak.

Parents who had rushed to the camp gathered outside the smouldering remains of the building: some looked on in silence, others wailed and sobbed in grief. One parent said: "We sent our child here for the summer, but he's dead." The camp, which is next to a recreational centre, opened four months ago. The children were attending a two-day summer programme. In the aftermath of the fire many kindergartens and schools have cancelled planned summer camps for their children.

In October a fire at a construction site in the southern port city of Pusan killed 27 people and injured 16. Four years ago more than 500 people died when a department store collapsed in Seoul. In the same year a bridge collapsed in the city, killing 100 people and seriously injuring 200.