(ATTN: ADDS comments from people in paras 6-9, 12-14, 19)
SEOUL, Feb. 11 (Yonhap) -- A deep sense of sorrow swept Seoul early Monday after an overnight fire ravaged Namdaemun, a 600-year-old gate and South Korea's National Treasure No. 1, at the onset of the Lunar New Year.
While police were investigating whether the wooden building had electrical problems, experts said arson was the likely cause.
"It's devastating, the pride of the nation has collapsed. It's so bad this kind of thing happened on the first weekday of the Lunar New Year," Kim Cheol-su, 55, said after the wooden-gate collapsed after five hours of efforts to extinguish the fire.
The fire was an emotional experience for Seoul citizens, who learned they had lost their first national treasure as they returned to work after the five-day Lunar New Year holiday.
"The treasure is gone," Shin Jae-hu, 34, a carpenter, said. "The fire-fighting efforts were too slow, which seems to have exacerbated the situation."
The incident also struck foreigners as both tragic and unreal.
"It's terrible to lose something with such historical significance and such sheer beauty," said Darren Williams, a 43-year-old American market researcher. "It was always a welcoming landmark for foreigners."
"I'm appalled, and feel sad for Koreans," Iain Lees, a 33-year-old English-language tutor from England, said.
"I'm saddened because this is a good country, and it's terrible Koreans have lost it," said June Agustin, a 26-year-old factory worker from the Philippines.
After the police received a report of the fire at around 8 p.m. Sunday, about 150 firefighters rushed to the scene. But the status of Namdaemun, South Korea's best-known national treasure, prevented them from taking aggressive measures. At the beginning of their work, the Cultural Heritage Administration asked for caution and they were not allowed to break in.
"Because of its symbolic importance of being national treasure No. 1, the cultural administration officials prevented us from breaking into the suspected area where the fire originated. It was impossible to put out the fire destroying that part," a firefighter said, requesting anonymity.
But nearby residents and shop owners voiced criticism, saying the fire could have been contained at an early moment.
"I didn't see a single fire truck arrive at the scene even as the fire began spreading," said Kim Chang-soo, who has a small kiosk near the historic landmark.
Kim Jae-bun, a 68-year-old who has run a drug store nearby for some 30 years, said. "It's like losing a family member. I never imagined it would burn down so helplessly."
As the wooden gate collapsed, heavy smog hung over the center of Seoul. Most of the first and second floors of the gate collapsed, as burning wooden pillars tumbled onto the grassy area around the gate.
The police are investigating whether the wooden gate had problems with its illumination equipment that could have caused an electrical fire or sparks, said Kim Young-soo, head of the Namdaemun Police Station. But experts say arson is more likely as the fire is believed to have originated on the second floor while the illumination equipment is located on the first floor.
The landmark, officially called Sungnyemun, or "gate of exalted ceremonies," was the southern gate of the walls that surrounded Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The 600-year-old wooden structure survived the Korean War, and underwent several renovations, most recently in 1962.
The gate, designated as National Treasure No. 1 in 1962, stands at the center of a large intersection surrounded by skyscrapers on one side and the crowded Namdaemun traditional market on the other.
"Many foreigners come to our market after sightseeing around the gate. I hope this incident doesn't affect our business," said Lee Seong-jin, an employee of a nearby shop handling imported goods.
The Seoul city government recently beautified the symbolic treasure, providing it with a grassy area and colorful lights and enhancing it as an historic fixture of Seoul.
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