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In Seoul, Survival Was Matter of Toughness, Rainwater _ And Luck

July 22, 1995

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ Park Sung-hyun had a one-sentence answer when she was asked how she survived 16 days in the rubble of a collapsed shopping mall.

``I was very, very lucky,″ the 19-year-old salesclerk said from her hospital bed, her hands on a Buddhist rosary that her grandmother believes brought her luck when the five-story building fell June 29.

Park was the last survivor to be pulled alive from the wrecked mall, and the rubble has now been almost completely cleared away.

She and two other young people rescued a few days earlier were dubbed ``miracle″ survivors. But the credit might go more to youth and strength, rainwater seeping through the ruins _ and simple luck.

The collapse of the five-story Sampoong Department Store into a heap of smoking rubble was South Korea’s worst peacetime disaster. The death toll stands at 458, and 144 are still listed as missing.

On Saturday, searchers packed up their equipment and left the site, saying all the bodies there had been found. Angry relatives of some of the missing fought with riot police, demanding the city resume the search.

Only 27 people were rescued alive from the wreckage, including one group of 24 cleaners who were saved because they were changing clothes after their work shift in a basement room that remained intact. They were pulled out two days after the collapse.

But the tales of the three long-term survivors raised agonizing questions over whether more might have been saved.

Rescue workers privately acknowledged that their tools and know-how were limited. When Park was rescued, authorities had already been using heavy equipment for 12 days _ leaving open the grisly possibility that others who survived the collapse might have been crushed by the rubble-clearing effort.

Saving lives depended more on chance than on any modern equipment or rescue techniques, officials and volunteer workers said.

``Our work here was like digging through garbage dumps with hoes,″ said Lee Byung-hee, a rescue official. ``Poking here and there, you had to be very lucky to find a hole large enough to hold a human body.″

In the first several days, fire engines poured water to quell black toxic smoke from burning cars in the underground parking garage, fearing the smoke could suffocate survivors.

The water was salvation for some, a killer for others.

Choi Myong-sok, 20, pulled out 9 1/2 days after the cave-in, said the water from fire trucks and monsoon rains drowned some people trapped near him. But Yoo Chi-hwan, 18, said she survived on that water for 12 days.

The decision to bring in heavy equipment after only four days was spurred by the summer heat, which was rapidly decomposing bodies in the ruins and raising fears of an outbreak of disease.

Most rescuers had never encountered a disaster of this magnitude.

``I have seen on TV what buildings looked like in the Oklahoma bombing and Kobe earthquakes. But I have never imagined a building could collapse like this,″ said Paek Il-sung, another rescue official.

In Kobe, few people were found alive after the first few days following a devastating quake Jan. 17. Fire swept the city after the quake, and winter cold probably killed others who were pinned in the ruins.

In Oklahoma City, storms made the search for survivors harder, and the violence of the explosion that wrecked the building killed many victims outright. Only a few survivors were dug out of the wreckage, and no one was found alive after the first night.

Sophisticated listening devices were quickly brought in to comb the rubble in Oklahoma. In Seoul, the only high-tech device used was a set of U.S. sound detectors flown from Hawaii. But it arrived too late and its use was largely ineffective because of the noise in the area.

One volunteer worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said city officials seemed more interested in briefing their own higher-ups than in heeding calls for flashlights, drills and other simple tools.

Many citizens, responding to appeals for help by TV stations, rushed to the scene with household tools but were blocked by police on orders not to allow unnecessary personnel into the area, newspapers reported.

Relatives of victims argued that swifter rescue work and more vigorous involvement by the central government could have saved more lives.

The last three survivors were found largely by chance. They were all found hemmed in tiny pockets of air, barely large enough for them to lie down in. Rescuers did not know of their presence until they heard their feeble cries for help.

Doctors had difficulty explaining how they survived, except that they were strong, young and healthy, not exposed to cold weather and had access to some water.

Park claimed she had nothing at all to drink, but humans normally cannot survive so long without water.

She is South Korea’s longest-surviving person trapped underground. Previously, a miner was trapped for nearly 16 days by a coal mine accident in 1968.

Park’s father calls her ``South Korea’s luckiest girl.″

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