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At Least 130 Dead, 99 Missing in S. Korea Subway Blaze - 2003-02-18

More than 130 people are believed to have died, some 136 were injured and 99 were still missing in an arson attack on a subway train in Daegu, South Korea's third largest city. The tragedy is being blamed on a man armed with a Molotov cocktail, whose motive is still a mystery.

Rescuers found a horrifying scene inside the charred steel frames of subway cars beneath the city of Daegu: dozens of bodies, some of them reduced to skeletons. On the platform, there were signs of desperate attempts to flee: discarded shoes and other belonging strewn about.

Police who have interviewed survivors say that passengers struggled with a man who threw a flaming plastic bottle into the train just after it arrived at Chungang-ro station. Investigators say the floor of the subway car, apparently soaked with paint thinner from the bottle, then caught fire.

An eyewitness said the man threw the container into the subway train even though people tried to stop him. He says a fire immediately broke out inside the carriage.

Police say a male suspect, who was among those taken to a hospital, was arrested two hours after the attack when he was identified by other victims. There was no immediate indication of the motive for the attack, although a police official told reporters that the suspect had previously been treated at a mental hospital.

The fire began just before 10 a.m. local time, as the morning commuter rush was winding down in Daegu, 200 kilometers southeast of the capital, Seoul. Much of the city's downtown was paralyzed in the chaos.

South Korean television showed choking black smoke rising from subway ventilation shafts and enveloping the center of the city. It took firefighters three hours to bring the blaze under control. Several thousand firefighters, policemen and rescuers rushed to the scene.

Rescuers wearing oxygen tanks could be seen bringing dozens of people to the surface on stretchers, the faces and clothes of the victims black with soot. The victims, some in serious condition, were being treated at eight separate hospitals. Officials said many of the dead had succumbed to smoke inhalation.

Toxic smoke hampered efforts to rescue 14 subway employees trapped on a station platform, and officials say all 14 were later found dead. The poisonous fumes also caused shopkeepers in nearby areas to flee.