A raging fire broke out in the basement of an eight-story fitness complex in the South Korean city of Jecheon, about 118 km southeast of Seoul, killing at least 29 people, 23 of them women, and injuring as many.
At least 20 of the dead, including 18 women and 2 men, were in a second-floor public bath when they were caught unawares in the blaze and were not able to flee to safety, fire officials told reporters on the scene.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a city fire department official said the death toll was expected to rise as firefighters continued their search through the building, after having battled the blaze for well over two hours to put it out.
“The fire produced so much toxic smoke so quickly, leaving many people unable to evacuate,” a National Fire Agency spokesman said.
Some twenty survivors who managed to reach the rooftop were lifted off the building in a crane’s basket and swung to safety. A number of them were taken to hospital where they received treatment for smoke inhalation.
The 45,000-square-foot concrete facility, Noble Fitness, and Spa, also housed a gym, indoor golf facility, and restaurants, in addition to the public bath and sauna.
The fire, which is reported to have started in the building’s basement car park at 3:50 pm local time, was so intense that as many as 50 fire engines and trucks filled with firefighters were rushed to the scene to fight the raging inferno. Two helicopters were also deployed to help battle the fire.
The choppers continued to hover over the doomed structure through much of the afternoon as thick smoke kept billowing out the building.
In a heart-stopping moment, witnesses saw a man jump off the ledge he had been clinging on to, fortunately landing on a massive air cushion deployed below by firefighters.
In an image posted on social media the man can be seen jumping off the building, feet first, amid thick smoke and leaping flames.
결국 또 돈…
제천 화재, 짧은 시간에 피해가 컸던 이유
— 한국일보 (@hankookilbo) December 21, 2017
CNN reports that a spokesman for the presidential Blue House told the news channel that President Moon Jae-in visited the site of the tragedy today (Friday).
Expressing regret over the tragic accident, the South Korean president urged the concerned officials to put in their “utmost” in their search and rescue efforts.
“The president is very sorry about the loss of multiple lives in the large fire,” said the presidential press secretary Yoon Young-chan.
Out of respect for the dead and the injured, organizers for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics canceled the torch relay that was scheduled to pass through the city on Friday.
An official of the organizing committee confirmed the cancellation saying they “decided to cancel the event to mourn the victims.”
As of now, the cause of the fire has not been determined; however, the Jecheon mayor has promised a thorough investigation.
Thursday’s fire was the worst in South Korea since 40 workers were killed in 2008 in a warehouse blaze in the city of Icheon.
However, the most devastating fire ever to have hit South Korea in recent times was the 2003 subway station arson attack in the city of Daegu that caused 192 deaths and left 150 injured.
With 280 fire deaths last year, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service data, South Korea’s fire safety record is much better than that of the United States where 3,300 people died in fires in 2015 alone, according to the U.S. Fire Administration records, which works out to a fire mortality rate of 10.5 per million people for that year.
South Korea’s fire mortality rate in 2016 was 5.5 per million people. Fire officials said that the death toll from Thursday’s fire represented 10 percent of all fire deaths in the entire country annually.
Prayers and thoughts to #Jecheon South Korea after building fire
— Amalia Hoffer (@amalia_hoffer) December 21, 2017
— Koreanized (@KoreanizedKR) December 21, 2017
— Tracy Jeffords (@TracyJeffords) December 21, 2017
Death toll from #fire at #fitness center in #Jecheon #SouthKorea, rises to at least 18, #fire depart says; 24 others injured .. Some rescued from the roof by #helicopters, others jumped from balconies 60+ #firefighters have contained the fire but it’s not completely out pic.twitter.com/ANiJyulktK
— sudhakar (@naidusudhakar) December 21, 2017