Police called in over Seoul store disaster

RICHARD LLOYD PARRY

Tokyo

Prosecutors in Seoul launched a criminal investigation yesterday as the number of dead in the collapse of the Sampoong department-store disaster rose to 113, with nearly 1,000 injured and 170 missing.

Overnight, nine people were rescued from the rubble of the five-storey building, which collapsed on Thursday evening, but toxic smoke from underground fires was hindering the relief effort, and killing some of those who remained trapped. The store's crowded basement food hall is still too hot for rescuers to enter.

Rescuers, including US military teams stationed in Korea, could see and hear many of the survivors, but they were unable to extricate them from the tangle of concrete blocks and steel beams. "I just discovered five people dead in one place," a volunteer worker said. "They were alive when I was there about four hours ago. They were suffocated by toxic smoke."

"All evidence points to poor construction work," said Choi Byung Yol, the mayor of Seoul, after a tour of the site. An inspection by store staff on Thursday revealed that a steel buttress which should have been in place beneath the fifth floor was missing, according to the owner of a restaurant on the floor. Construction experts said the girders and concrete used in the building were sub-standard, and that the ceilings lacked supporting joists.

The store manager, Lee Han Sung, and six other executives, as well as the building contractor, were questioned by police. All had escaped unharmed after reportedly fleeing from the building at the last moment, without raising a general alarm. Mr Lee said he had requested an inspection four days earlier after cracks started appearing in the building, which had received a clean bill of health from government inspectors in March.

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