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Relatives Visit S. Korea Subway Fire Site

February 22, 2003

DAEGU, South Korea (AP) _ Wailing relatives of victims in a devastating subway fire marched into the burned-out station Saturday, demanding the arrest of officials for negligence and fingering through the wreckage for personal items of loved ones.

It was the first time victims’ relatives were allowed onto the charred underground platforms since Tuesday’s disaster, which has claimed at least 133 lives.

About 150 people took part in the half-hour march, blaming city officials and subway managers for apparently lax safety standards that may have contributed to the high death toll.

The blaze, in South Korea’s third largest city of Daegu, engulfed two trains stopped at the station and was started by a man who later told police he was trying to kill himself.

Holding placards that called for the arrest of the Daegu mayor and the head of the subway corporation, grieving relatives marched through the city streets before descending into the blackened subway station. Many burst into tears as they entered, yelling out the names of the dead.

South Korean police said Friday that a subway conductor apparently fled one of the burning trains without opening the doors for his passengers, leaving dozens to die.

Most of the dead were killed in that train, which pulled into the station after a first train had already caught fire. The conductor of second train, identified only by his last name, Choi, told police he thought that the doors were open as fire engulfed the cars and that passengers had evacuated, so he took the key used to control the doors and fled to safety.

But police said that of the six cars in the train, the doors were open on only two of them, meaning that dozens of passengers were left behind, trapped in raging flames and toxic smoke.

Investigators are considering filing negligence charges against Choi and nine other subway officials. They are also trying to learn why subway controllers allowed Choi’s train to pull in to the station after the fire ignited on the first train.

Critics said the tragedy revealed problems with the nation’s emergency response system and a potential vulnerability to terrorism.

Had the train been equipped with fire-resistant seats and floor tiles, many said, it probably would not have burst into flames. And an apparent lack of adequate emergency lighting left victims groping in the dark after the lights went out.

After the fire, President-elect Roh Moo-hyun said he would instruct officials to inspect the South Korean subway system’s safety features and upgrade them if necessary ``so such an incident never takes place again.″

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