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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on May 1)

All News 07:09 May 01, 2020

Recurring tragic fires
Time to take radical action to keep safety guidelines

A fatal fire broke out at a nearly-completed refrigerated warehouse in Icheon, south of Seoul, Wednesday, resulting in at least 38 deaths and 10 people injured. Among the injured, eight are in critical condition.

In the four-story building construction site, with two underground levels, an estimated 78 laborers were at work. The exact cause is yet to be determined, but Icheon fire department has suggested that the fire was presumably sparked from work involving urethane foam, a combustible chemical used as an insulator, and the installation of a freight elevator that were in progress on the second underground floor.

It's a sad tragedy, all the more so because we have seen such man-made accidents recurring throughout the past two decades or so.

In December 2017, a fire broke out at a sports facility in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province, resulting in 29 deaths. Then just a month later, a blaze occurred at a hospital in Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province, killing 45. In a haunting similarity, a fire broke out in January 2008 at a refrigerated warehouse in Icheon where urethane was in use, killing 40. Searching back to news articles at that time, the media and public all lamented its similarity to an October 1998 fire at a refrigerated warehouse in the city of Busan.

In the wake of the Wednesday fire, President Moon Jae-in immediately ordered thorough and complete search and rescue operations using all resources available.

The Suwon District Prosecutors' Office has formed a team to look into what caused the fire. Investigators will work in cooperation with the police and fire station officials overseeing the city of Icheon. One of the key things they must look into is why enhanced fire safety measures have not worked, as was President Moon's order given to officials Thursday. Government agencies must also look into the safe monitoring of the use of the highly-combustible urethane as an insulator.

In a ministers' meeting held Thursday for damage assessment and relief for the victims' families, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said a taskforce will be formed within the Office for Government Policy Coordination with invited non-governmental experts to draft measures to prevent such tragic events in the future. If necessary, legal measures will be drawn up to hold those found responsible accountable.

The workers on the Icheon site were mostly temporary employees, working on a daily basis. There were also three foreign nationals. The tragedy came, regrettably, just before Budhha's Birthday and May Day. We should take to heart the meaning of the two days to offer our condolences, and strengthen safety regulations for all workers.

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