The Daegu Subway Fire of 2003

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3 years ago

Imagine, you're in the morning rush-hour. As you make your way inside on the subway with other commuters heading your way to work, or at school, or in any other place you want to go at. But what would happen if the train was set on fire? Would you make it out alive? This incident remains the deadliest deliberate loss of life in a single incident in South Korea.

The perpetrator?

Kim Dae-Han

Kim Dae-han, 56 years old. A former taxi driver who had been left partially paralyzed after suffering a stroke in November 2001. He was mentally ill during the incident. He wanted to commit suicide, and chose a crowded place because he did not want to die alone.

What happened?

February 18, 2003. Dae-han boarded the train at 9:53 a.m. carrying a duffel bag that contained 2 milk cartons filled with flammable liquid. As the train left Banwoldang Station, he was fumbling with the cartons and a cigarette lighter. Other passengers tried to stop him. During the struggle, one of the cartons spilled and its liquid contents caught fire as Train 1079 pulled into Jungangno Station in downtown Daegu. Within 2 minutes, the fire had spread to all six cars of the train. Dae-han's legs and his back were on fire, but managed to escape with the other passengers. Then the fire spread quickly. The seats, flooring, and advertisement boards were not made of fire-proof materials but it was made of flammable fiberglass, carbonated vinyl, and polyethylene.

At 9:57 a.m., another train was pulled into the station and was also set ablaze. Choi Jeong-hwan, the train operator of Train 1080 made three announcements advising passengers to remain seated as he reaches his superiors. Then he made his final announcement, opens the doors, and fled the scene. 3 hours later, the fire was not extinguished as first responders rushed to the scene. Due to the disaster, there was no sufficient emergency equipment as Daegu subway trains were not equipped with fire extinguishers, the stations lacked sprinklers and emergency lighting.

The Victims?

192 dead, while 151 were injured. Many of the victims were students, young women who worked in department stores that open at 10:30 a.m.

The Aftermath?

Kim Dae-han was convicted of arson & homicide, instead of the death penalty which was pushed by the prosecutors and supported by the victims' families, Dae-han was sentenced to life imprisonment on August 6, 2003, for his remorse and mental instability. He was not the only one arrested during the incident: Choi Jeong-hwan, Choi Sang-yeol, and 5 officials were also arrested, convicted with negligent manslaughter for failing to safely evacuate passengers. Dae-han died on August 31, 2004, due to a chronic illness in prison.

The Korean government ensures the safety of all commuters by installing safety equipment, and the subway was renovated on April 2003. In December 2008, a theme park was opened to educate the citizens of Daegu about safety.


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