[Korean History] In 2003's Daegu, disaster plays out underground

Arsonist onboard

On Feb. 18, 2003, Daegu metro train no. 1079 pulled into Songhyeon Station at around 9:30 a.m. Among the passengers who boarded the train was 56-year-old Kim Dae-han.

He carried with him two liters of gasoline in a shampoo bottle and a lighter. Kim had been diagnosed with a level 2 mental disorder in 2001 resulting from a stroke that left him with a disability and unemployed. He had threatened to set fire to a psychiatric hospital just 10 days earlier.

About 20 minutes later, after the train had arrived at Jungangno Station, Kim lit the bottle on fire and threw it on the ground.

“Passengers around him tried to stop him, but he set fire (to the train) and ran away,” a 35-year-old woman surnamed Seok was quoted as saying in the article.

Three minutes later, train no. 1080 entered Jungangno Station from the opposite side and pulled forward on the track. “Proceed safely. There’s a fire at Jungangno Station,” was what the conductor was told.

By that time, the station had filled with dense smoke and power had been cut off.

Neither the conductor nor the metro control tower apprehended the severity of the situation. Neither did the passengers on train no. 1080.

Precious minutes passed as the conductor tried to communicate with the control center on what to do and restart the station's electricity with the emergency backup power generator, which did not work.

When he finally received instructions to evacuate passengers, the conductor left the train. He carried the master key as instructed, which sealed the fate of many passenger still inside the train.

Removing the master key shuts down nearly all of a subway's functions, including the opening and closing of the doors.

Trapped passengers made desperate calls to their loved ones before they succumbed to tragedy. One of them reported in local media proceeded as follows.

“Follow the other passengers to make your way out safely,” said a mother to her daughter onboard the train, to which the daughter responded, “Mom, but the door won’t open.”

By the time emergency workers had put out the fire at around half past 1 p.m., over 100 passengers had been killed in train no. 1080 alone.

Kim, the arsonist, was indicted on multiple charges of murder and arson and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The following year, while incarcerated, he suffered a stroke and died.

Nine employees of the Daegu Metropolitan Transit Corp. also faced consequences for their bungled response.

The conductor of the no. 1080 train, surnamed Choi, was the most severely punished among them, as over 70 percent of the deaths were from his train. He made the grave mistake of failing to evacuate passengers in a timely manner, telling them to stay still inside the train until further notice and failing to realize that people were locked in when he fled the vehicle with the master key. He had been instructed to do so, but he was nonetheless sentenced to five years of imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter.

Employees of the control center were also punished, as was the conductor of the no. 1079 train. Although he immediately rushed to the scene of the fire, attempted to extinguish it and made sure that his passengers were out of the train, he failed to report the fire to the control center.

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