South Korea’s Moon promises thorough probe as anger mounts at deadly sauna fire

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South Korean President Moon Jae-In sits next to Chinese President Xi Jinping (not seen) during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China December 14, 2017. REUTERS/Nicolas Asfouri/Pool

South Korean President Moon Jae-in comforted mourners in the small scenic city of Jecheon on Friday amid growing public anger at how fire ripped through an eight-storey building, killing at least 29 people, most of them taking a sauna.

All but one of the victims had been identified by Friday morning, including 20 women who were overcome by toxic fumes in the second-floor sauna, Jecheon fire chief Lee Sang-min said. “Our crew on the scene said the lockers inside the facility were installed like a labyrinth and it’s a glass building with few windows, which apparently made way for the smoke from the first floor to quickly fill up the second floor,” Lee told reporters.

Consoling family members, President Moon Jae-in said he was devastated and promised a full investigation. “The government as a whole will thoroughly probe this accident’s cause and process of response, and although after the fact, the investigation and measures will be such that, at least, there will not be lingering deep sorrow.”

 

Moon’s predecessor, ousted former president Park Geun-hye, was widely criticised for her slow and ineffective response to the Sewol ferry tragedy in 2014 in which more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, drowned. Anger mounted on Friday at reports of shoddy construction, broken doors and other problems that may have contributed to the deaths.

One man shouted at officials visiting survivors in hospital, complaining that firefighters failed to break through to the trapped women in time. Media reported that a glass door leading to the sauna had not been working properly for more than a month, and that emergency stairs were often used for storage.

“Nothing has changed even after the Sewol tragedy,” parliament member Ahn Cheol-soo said. “I just cannot understand why the same type of accidents happen over and over again,” he said, according to the Yonhapnews agency.

Jecheon’s mayor told reporters the city was considering a mass funeral and planned to cover most of the costs. Investigators were still trying to find out the cause of the conflagration, but were focusing on a first-floor parking lot, Lee said.

“There were cars parked on the first floor, and as they were burning, a large amount of toxic gases were released.” Tragic stories began to emerge as victims were identified.