By Andrei Lankov
June 29, 1995, was marked by the worst peacetime disaster in the history of Seoul _ the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store. It occurred at 6 p.m. when the building was full of shoppers _ largely upper-middle class housewives.
The history of the Sampoong Department Store began in 1987, when the Sampoong Group launched the construction of a new emporium in the posh Kangnam area. The building was finished in late 1989, but by that time its design and structure had undergone a number of serious changes. The owners did not bother to ask for approvals _ especially as they knew the changes were against the building code. They simply bribed the relevant officials.
By the mid-1990s, Sampoong had become one of the most fashionable and expensive department stores in the city. The Korean business and political elite (or rather, its female part) frequently shopped there.
Indeed, it was the popularity of Sampoong’s eateries that indirectly caused the disaster. According to an established tradition, no Korean department store is complete without an ``eating gallery.’’ The Sampoong eating gallery enjoyed remarkable success, so the owners decided to improve it. They arranged an artificial pond with a life-size watermill and installed a lot of heavy air-refrigeration equipment. The result was a huge weight overload that made the entire construction unstable. Renovations to the underground parking lot _ conducted without any approval _ further increased this instability, so by 1995 the fashionable Sampoong Emporium was a disaster waiting to happen.
And the disaster did happen. From April 1995, employees began to notice cracks in the ceilings of the top (fifth) floor. However, nothing was done until the morning of June 29, when the cracks increased dramatically. At this juncture the managers closed the top floor and switched the air-conditioning off. They also invited a group of civil engineering experts to check the structure.
The experts duly arrived and after a cursory check came to the conclusion that the building was facing a real danger of collapse. However, the managers (including the son of the Sampoong Group president who was the CEO of the department store) were reluctant to close the store: that afternoon the number of shoppers was unusually high, and they did not want to lose the revenue.
Around 5 p.m., the ceilings of the fourth floor visually began to sink. The fourth floor was also closed, but trade did not stop until 5:50 p.m., when the entire building began to make cracking sounds. The alarms went off, and the evacuation began, but it was far too late. Around 6:05 p.m., the five-story building completely collapsed, killing and burying alive many hundreds.
Rescue work began immediately. Within the first day two hundred survivors were pulled from the debris. However, as time went on, the number of finds dwindled. After a week the chances of finding survivors were seen as negligible.
And then a series of miracles happened. On the 12th day of rescue operations, workers discovered a young woman who was alive and conscious: Yu Chi-hwan, an 18-year-old sales clerk, had been lucky enough to be trapped in a small pocket in the wreckage, thus surviving the subsequent ordeal. Yu’s rescue was followed by another: 19-year-old Pak Sung-hyon, another Sampoong employee, was found alive after 16 days of confinement. She was conscious and even felt well enough to bother about propriety: she demanded a blanket to cover herself before being removed from the debris. Her calm and self-control made her a darling of the Korean media.
The Sampoong tragedy took 502 lives, and an additional 937 people sustained injuries. The disaster led to countless human tragedies. A prominent lawyer lost all his three daughters, and the widow of a former Cabinet minister, who had been killed by North Korean commandos in Burma, lost her only daughter. The daughter-in-law of the Sampoong president was also buried under the wreckage, although she was subsequently rescued from a small pocket where she spent hours with one of her employees. The list of victims read like Korea’s Who’s Who _ indeed, Sampoong used to be the place of choice for the rich and famous.
In December 1995, the chairman of the Sampoong Group and his son, the CEO of the department store, received prison sentences. The disaster also led to a review of Korean safety regulations. Nonetheless, the Korean construction industry is still plagued by many problems. But that is another story…