On February 18, 2003, a calamitous event took place under Daegu’s downtown streets, one that was to have a heavy impact on the Korean psyche, and a terrible comedown after the spectacular success of the previous year’s World Cup. The simple facts – around two hundred killed in a subway fire – do not even begin to tell the story, with failings before, during and after the event bringing about a national sense of shame, and a level of introspection previously unseen in a country accustomed to looking abroad for excuses.
A few months before the fire, a man named Kim Dae-han had suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed. Ostracized by his family and friends, and losing his sanity, he decided to take his frustrations out on society. During a Tuesday morning rush-hour, he wandered into a subway train armed with gasoline-filled containers, which caught fire as the train pulled into Jungangno station. The fire spread rapidly through the carriages, owing to the lack of any fire-extinguishing apparatus on board; both the seats and the flooring produced toxic smoke as they burned. Kim managed to escape, along with many passengers from his train, but the poor safety procedures on the line meant that the driver arriving in the opposite direction was not informed of the problem, and pulled in to a plume of thick, toxic smoke. At this point the fire detection system kicked in and shut off power on the line, leaving both trains stranded. The driver of the second train told passengers to remain seated while he attempted to contact the station manager, and when finally put through was told to leave the train immediately. He duly scurried upstairs, but in his haste had removed the train’s key, shutting off power to the doors, and effectively sealing the remaining passengers inside – death on a large scale was inevitable. The total count has never been fully established, as some bodies were burnt beyond all recognition.
The families of the victims, and the country as a whole, needed someone to blame. The arsonist was sentenced to life in prison, avoiding the death penalty on the grounds of mental instability; he died in jail soon afterwards. The incident raised some serious questions, primarily about safety being compromised by a thirst for profit, and the treatment of the disabled in Korean society – a baptism of fire for incoming president Roh Moo-hyun. Safety on Daegu’s subway has since been significantly improved, and facilities for the disabled have improved across Korea. At least some good may be coming out of one of Korea’s biggest modern-day disasters.