Fire at Construction Site Kills 36 in South Korea, With More Feared Dead

SEOUL, South Korea — A blaze at a construction site southeast of Seoul killed 36 people on Wednesday in one of the deadliest fires to hit South Korea in recent years, police officers and local news reports said.

With emergency workers still looking for four more people who may remain trapped inside a building filled with toxic smoke, they have so far found 36 bodies, Park Su-jong, a fire department official, said during a news briefing. Ten others were injured, including one in serious condition, he said.

When the fire broke out, 78 workers were believed to be working in the four-story warehouse under construction in Incheon, 50 miles southeast of Seoul, the Fire Department said.

The blaze was the third devastating workplace fire to hit South Korea in recent years, and came as President Moon Jae-in has struggled to make good on his promise to put an end to the man-made disasters that have convulsed the country since a 2014 ferry sinking killed more than 300 people.

The Fire Department said it was investigating the cause of the blaze. But news media reports said that it had begun with an explosion in an underground level, where some workers used urethane, a combustible chemical used for insulation work. Other news reports quoted survivors who suspected that the fire might have been caused by a cigarette butt or a spark from workers installing an elevator.

Dozens of fire engines were sent to control the flames. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun urged his government to dedicate every available resource to rescue the workers believed to be trapped in the warehouse.

The fire was extinguished in three hours, but firefighters searching for the missing workers were hampered by toxic gas in the warehouse.

Photos and TV reports showed orange-red flames and black clouds of smoke engulfing the warehouse and responders bringing out bodies from the building on stretchers to ambulances outside.

The Yonhap news agency quoted a survivor as saying that the smoke filled the building so quickly that he could barely find his way out.

South Korea, which has had strong economic growth in recent decades, has been prone to major disasters despite its leaders’ repeated promises to make the country safer.

In 2014, an overloaded ferry capsized, killing more than 300 people, most of them high school students. In 2018, a fire at a hospital that doubled as a nursing home killed 47 people.

The blaze came two years after a hospital fire in the southern city of Miryang killed 41 people in a building that lacked sprinklers. That disaster occurred a month after another fire killed 29 people at a fitness center.

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