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The Daegu subway fire
Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Igniting a carton filled with gasoline inside a subway train
Number of victims: 198
Date of murders: February 17, 2003
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1947
Victims profile: Men, women and children (subway train passengers)
Method of murder: Fire
Location: Daegu, South Korea
Status: Sentenced to life in prison on August 5, 2003. Died in prison on August 31, 2004
photo gallery

The Daegu subway fire of February 18, 2003 killed at least 198 people and injured at least 147. An arsonist set fire to a train stopped at the Jungangno Station of the Daegu Metropolitan Subway in Daegu, South Korea. The fire then spread to a second train which had entered the station from the opposite direction.

Kim Dae-han

The arsonist was Kim Dae-han, a 56 year-old unemployed former taxi driver who had suffered a stroke in November 2001 that left him partly paralyzed. Kim was dissatisfied with his medical treatment and had expressed sentiments of violence and depression; he later told police he wanted to kill himself, but to do so in a crowded place rather than alone. By most accounts, on the morning of February 18, he boarded train 1079 on Line 1 in the direction of Daegok, carrying a duffel bag which contained two green milk cartons filled with a flammable liquid, possibly paint thinner or gasoline.


As the train left Daegu Station around 9:53 a.m., Kim began fumbling with the cartons and a cigarette lighter, alarming other passengers who tried to stop him. In the struggle, one of the cartons spilled and its liquid contents caught fire as the train pulled into Jungangno Station in downtown Daegu. Kim, his back and legs on fire, managed to escape along with many passengers on train 1079, but within two minutes the fire had spread to all six cars. The fire spread quickly in the insulation between the layers of aluminum that form the shell of the cars, the vinyl and plastic materials in seat cushions and strap handles, and heavy plastic matting on the floors, producing thick smoke as it burned.

The operator of the train, Choi Jeong-hwan, failed to notify subway officials immediately of the fire.

Errors compound the disaster

Smoke being visible on their closed-circuit television monitors, subway officials radioed the operator of train 1080, Choi Sang-yeol, advising him to proceed with caution because there was a fire in the station. Train 1080 entered Jungangno station and stopped alongside blazing train 1079 approximately four minutes later. The doors opened only briefly, then shut, apparently in an effort to keep out the toxic smoke that had filled the station. Shortly after train 1080's arrival, an automatic fire detector shut down the power supply to both trains, preventing train 1080 from leaving the station.

Transcripts show Choi Sang-yeol made three announcements advising passengers in train 1080 to remain seated while he attempted to reach superiors. Finally, he was advised "Quickly, run somewhere else. Go up... kill the engine and go." Choi then opened the doors and fled, but in doing so he removed the master key, shutting down the onboard batteries which powered the train doors effectively sealing passengers inside. Later investigation showed 79 passengers remained trapped inside train 1080 and died there.

Inadequate emergency equipment also worsened the disaster. Daegu subway trains were not equipped with fire extinguishers, and the stations lacked sprinklers and emergency lighting. Many victims became disoriented in the dark, smoke-filled underground station and died of asphyxiation looking for exits. Emergency ventilation systems also proved inadequate. Over 1,300 fire and emergency personnel responded and the fire itself was extinguished around 1:25 p.m.; however, the toxicity of the smoke prevented them from entering the station for another three and a half hours.


The intensity of the fire made it difficult to accurately assess the number of victims. Most were burned beyond recognition, many to the bone, and required DNA analysis to identify. A total of 191 bodies were found and identified; 6 additional bodies were found but so thoroughly destroyed that they could not be identified; and one person's possessions were identified but remains could not be located.

As the incident occurred late in the morning rush hour, most of the victims were students or young women who worked in the downtown district's department stores, which opened at 10:30 a.m. Many were able to contact loved ones on their mobile phones, and mobile phone operators released call connection and attempt records to help authorities determine who was in the station.

Investigation and coverup

Choi Sang-yeol could not be located for 11 hours after the accident, and investigators later discovered he had made contact with officials from the subway corporation during that time. The master key from train 1080 was found in an office at the Ansim train depot. Omissions from transcripts of radio communications also heightened suspicion of an attempted coverup.

On February 26, 2003, authorities arrested Kim Dae-han, who had fled to a hospital for treatment. They also arrested both Choi and six officials of the Daegu Metropolitan Subway Corporation, the head of which was fired the same day.


The tragedy prompted outpourings of sympathy and anger from throughout South Korea and internationally.

Officials promised to install better safety equipment in subway stations, and added spray-on fire resistant chemicals to the interiors of the cars of the Daegu Metropolitan Subway.

Six stations were taken out of service for refurbishment and restored in April 2003. The tragedy was considered by many a national embarrassment, provoking debate about whether South Korea had cut too many corners in safety during its rapid industrialization. Several metro trains throughout the country were subsequently refurbished to improve fire-resistant standards within a few years of the accident.

On August 7, the Daegu District Court convicted Choi Sang-yeol, operator of train 1080, and Choi Jeong-hwan, operator of train 1079, sentencing them to prison for five and four years respectively for criminal negligence. Kim Dae-han was convicted of arson and homicide. Although prosecutors and victims' families had asked for the death penalty, the court sentenced him to life in prison on account of his remorse and mental instability. Kim died in prison on August 31, 2004, in the city of Jinju, where he had been receiving medical treatment.


Effort to Fix Responsibility for Deadly Korean Subway Fire

By Don Kirk - The New York Times

Friday, February 21, 2003

TAEGU, South Korea, Feb. 21 ? A tragedy of errors was responsible for most of the 130 deaths in the subway fire here on Tuesday, investigators said today. The police are considering criminal charges of negligence.

Fire and subway officials in the charred station where all the victims were killed or injured described faulty emergency signals, poor communications and misjudgments on the part of subway workers with little or no training in how to cope with such a situation.

"Some of the doors were open and some were closed on the second train," the manager of an emergency fire crew, Chun Pak Chung, said as he headed into the depths of the station. "The control room turned off the power to stop the flames."

Investigators were also questioning the engineer on the second of the two trains, who was reported to have fled with the master key to the subway cars' doors, which were shut tight with screaming passengers trapped inside. It was on the second train that most of the victims died after the heat, flames and smoke engulfed them with no means of escape.

The chief investigator, Cho Doo Won, said the engineer of that train had told the police that he directed passengers three times over the public address system to leave the train, and then fled himself with the master key in his coat pocket.

But other fire and subway officials said the doors of three of the train's six cars had already been shut by the decision of controllers to turn off electrical power, out of fear that electricity surging through the train would intensify the flames.

The overriding question, though, was why the train entered the station at all, since it had stopped for several minutes a few hundred yards away as flames and smoke spread through the first train. The police say the fire was started by a deranged man who ignited a plastic container of paint thinner with a cigarette lighter.

Investigators listened to an audiotape of a conversation between the engineer of the second train and controllers in which, the officials recounted, he said he was stopped in the tunnel and asked when or whether he should move his train into the station. He was eventually told to keep proceed and then let out all his passengers.

"They thought at first it was a small incident," Mr. Chun said. "When he pulled in the station, he opened the doors and the smoke was too heavy. He closed the doors again."

President-elect Roh Moo Hyun visited the scene on Thursday, promising a thorough investigation after meeting with grief-stricken friends and relatives of victims. He said he felt "shame and strong responsibility" that people entrusted with the public's safety would have had "such a poor sense of safety awareness."

Investigators said that equipment was as much responsible as human error. As the flames from the first train spread to the second, the engineer tried to reopen the doors. The doors worked on three cars before the power was cut, officials said.

The root cause for the blaze's spreading so quickly appeared to be the insulation between the layers of aluminum that form the shell of the cars, as well as vinyl and plastic materials in seat cushions and strap handles, and heavy plastic matting on the floors.

The fast-burning flames, which were estimated to have pushed temperatures as high as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, leaped from the first to the second train and down the cars of each train, twisting aluminum, turning strap handles and floor covering to wax, and burning bodies so badly that officials fear identification of most victims will not be possible.

Despite the horrific damage done by the flames, officials said, most victims were felled by the toxic fumes and smoke created by the burning vinyl and plastic seat cushions.

"When things reach a certain heat, they burn," a safety inspector, Chung Hee Gwon, said. "The basic frames are metal, but the support material is plastic."

Jung Chan Kyo, a civil engineer for the subway system, said the cars were built 10 years ago with material that is not used in later models. "Because the cars were so old, that's why they caught fire," he said. "There's no safety standard for vinyl material. New cars have cushions, but they are not made of vinyl."

As for how the flames moved so quickly through every car on both trains, he said that "it got so hot, the next car catches on fire" even though metal itself might not have been burning.

Mr. Chun said the disaster had taught subway engineers lessons in how to prevent a recurrence. "You should put in materials that are not flammable," he said. "The vinyl, the polyester in the advertisements were all responsible. We will be taking many more precautions."


S. Korean Man Gets Life for Fatal Subway Fire

Beijing Time

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

A man charged with starting a subway fire in South Korea that killed 198 people was sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday.

Kim Dae-han, 56, was accused of starting the Feb. 18 blaze by igniting a carton filled with gasoline inside a subway train in Daegu, South Korea's third-largest city.

The Daegu District Court convicted him Wednesday of arson and homicide.

Prosecutors had asked for the death penalty, but the court gave Kim a life sentence, saying he was repentant and appeared to have been mentally unstable when he committed the crime.

The fire engulfed one six-car train, then spread to another that pulled into the station a few minutes later, killing at least 198 people and injuring 147 others.

About 30 relatives of the victims were at the court hearing and angrily protested the verdict, calling it too lenient, said South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

The court also gave jail terms of four and five years to two drivers of the trains, and three-year terms for two subway officials, on negligent manslaughter charges for failing to evacuate passengers. Three other subway officials received suspended jail terms on same charges.

Both prosecutors and the accused can appeal the verdicts within a week.



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