| The suspected arsonist in a hospital in Daegu, 200 km from Seoul. (AFP) South Korean firemen walk through the charred wreckage of a subway train on Tuesday in Daegu, 200 km from Seoul. (AFP)
Taegu (South Korea), Feb. 18 (Reuters): About 120 people were killed in South Korea and scores were missing today after flames and smoke engulfed two crowded subway trains following an arson attack, officials said.
The mayor of the southeastern city of Taegu said a 56-year-old male with a history of mental illness was suspected of starting the blaze at the end of the morning rush hour.
A witness said the man had set fire to flammable liquid in a milk carton and tossed it into a carriage. Officials said a second train pulled into the station as the blaze took hold. The two trains, each with six carriages, had a total of up to 400 people on board.
Taegu fire chief Kim Shin-dong told reporters there were more than 70 unidentified charred bodies in the burned-out subway cars, which together with an official figure of 49 dead from hospitals took the toll to around 120.
Figures had switched throughout the day, with many bodies burnt so badly they were impossible to identify immediately. An official at the Taegu Emergency Rescue Centre had earlier said 134 people had died. Scores of people were still unaccounted for and feared dead.
Many struggled in vain to escape the inferno that reduced the trains to metal skeletons and sent black, acrid smoke belching into the sky for hours after the fire started.
Television footage showed rescuers covering up charred bodies in the ash and soot-filled carriages, a burnt shoe among the wreckage. At street level, relatives and friends gathered anxiously to look through a list of names or held each other and cried.
The number of injured on a board at the emergency centre was put at 135, with 159 missing. It was unclear whether the missing included the 70 corpses the fire chief said were still in the trains.
Rescue official Lee Hyong-kyun said the fire ignited seat fabric and floor tiles.
“If you ignite a flammable liquid like gasoline inside a closed space, what you’ll get is something very close to an explosion,” he said.
“There would have been hardly any time to escape.”
As dense smoke billowed from subway air vents, soot-covered firefighters in orange suits and with breathing apparatus dragged bodies and the injured up blackened stairwells.
One man, whose wife was trapped by the inferno, told South Korean television he had received a desperate call from her mobile phone. “Help me,” he quoted her as saying. “There’s a fire on the subway. The door is locked.” It was a heart-wrenching call others were to make.
“My daughter called me twice at 9.57 am crying: ‘Mother there’s smoke everywhere, but the door won’t open!” said a woman at a makeshift crisis centre outside Taegu’s Joongangro Station. Rescue officials said they would tow the carriages to a hub station this evening so forensic experts could examine victims’ remains.
A fireman in Taegu, which is 200 km southeast of Seoul, said the trains had been gutted.
“Everything is gone,” said Sung Bo-hun, who was inside the subway until 1040 GMT. “You can’t recognise the people inside. It is all black and grey.”
Telephone firms were helping people find out for sure if their relatives were on the trains by tracing mobile phone signals.
More than 100 people were killed and another 100 injured in a gas explosion on Taegu's only subway line in 1995.
Yonhap quoted one witness as saying passengers had tried in vain to tackle the suspect in today’s blaze.
Another said many passengers were trapped behind closed doors.