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Nothing’s changed

Dec 23,2017
How many more lives have to suffer and how many more casualties do we have to witness before our society becomes safety-alert? Various problems have been exposed by the blaze at a multistory fitness center in the North Chungcheong city of Jecheon, which killed 29 and injured 31. The accident raises serious questions about our deftness. We are repeating the same follies with every major accident.

The latest resembles the apartment building fire in Uijeongbu in January 2015, which killed five and injured 129. A fire that started from a motorcycle parked at a thin column outside the building quickly spread across the entire apartment building through the combustible exterior. The Jaecheon fire also caught fire during a pipe repair job at the piloti-type parking lot of the building and quickly spread to the ninth floor. The Dryvit exterior finish emit strong toxic gas and burst into flames easily, made the rescue difficult. Dryvit has been the culprit for worsening the fire and casualties in Uijeongbu as well as the 2010 fire at a multistory building in Busan, and yet a similar accident has recurred.

Since late 2015, the government requires the use of noninflammable materials for building exteriors, but does not have any regulations on buildings built before then. Authorities must toughen the regulations and supervision for buildings.

The rescue procedure was also slack. Firefighters arrived at the scene seven minutes after they received the emergency call. But they could not reach the upper level because the ladder truck could not enter the narrow ally. There were cries for help, but instead of cracking open the windows to save lives, the firefighters were more engrossed with putting out the fire. Many could have been saved from the second-floor sauna, where 20 women died from suffocation, had the windows been broken to let air in. Even after the ladder truck arrived, it did not help because it did not work properly. A cleaning truck with a ladder came to the scene and saved three. During the Sewol ferry sinking, fishing boats saved lives, not the Coast Guard. Some of the victims had serious injuries to their hands, suggesting their desperation.

The fire alarm went off, but the building did not alert people to evacuate. Survivors said the water sprinklers did not work. The building was not in compliance with fire safety regulations.

The president, government officials and politicians rushed to the scene. But what we must see are real actions and changes. The Sewol ferry tragedy made us seriously question the reliability of the state in protecting public lives. Promises were made. But this fire shows things haven’t changed.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 23, Page 30