South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday called for a full investigation into the collapse of a student-packed auditorium near the southern city of Gyeongju that killed at least 10 people and injured more than 100.
More than 560 college students taking part in a freshman orientation were believed to have been attending a concert in the building when the roof caved in on Monday – apparently under the weight of heavy snow – at 9.15pm (12h15 GMT). The auditorium was part of a mountain resort complex near Gyeongju that had experienced unusually heavy snowfall in the preceding week.
“It is heart-rending that so many lives were sacrificed… a thorough investigation must be carried out,” Park told a cabinet meeting.
The tragedy occurred as the country was still reeling from news of the bombing of a bus laden with South Korean tourists in Egypt near the Israeli border. Police said a suicide bomber was probably behind the attack on Sunday that killed three South Koreans and their Egyptian driver.
The resort auditorium was a pre-engineered building, assembled with rigid frames and side walls – of a type normally used for warehouses and aviation hangars. Fire officials said the accumulated weight of the snow piled on the roof of the building appeared to have caused the structure to buckle, raising questions about its soundness.
The Ministry of Security and Public Administration said 10 people, including nine students, were confirmed dead, with two more seriously injured and 101 others who suffered “bruises and cuts”.
Some parents of the victims voiced outrage, saying the organisers of the orientation event had failed to ensure the students’ safety. “What on earth were they doing? They didn’t even bother to take a look at the site before pushing through with the event despite such heavy snowfalls,” a woman whose 18-year-old daughter was among the dead told Yonhap news agency.
One distraught father recalled how he had texted his daughter just a few hours before the accident to check that she was enjoying herself. “I thought she was having so much fun that she didn’t have time to text me back… now I can’t even describe how I feel,” he said.
More than 1 400 rescuers and workers, backed by heavy equipment, had worked throughout the night under arc lights to clear the debris and snowfall to reach the victims. “The ceiling came crashing down at the front near the stage,” one student told the YTN news channel. “Then pandemonium broke out and everyone started rushing towards the exits, shouting and screaming,” he added.
Another witness, Kim Ga-hyun, 20, said the structure continued to cave in as the panicked students tried to escape. “Steel frames collapsed around those who were squeezing through the exit. We had to tear down window panes to get out,” she said.
The ground around the building was covered with a thick blanket of snow, which continued to fall throughout the night and hampered rescue efforts.
The auditorium was part of the Mauna Ocean Resort, which had been hosting the freshman orientation for almost 1 000 students from a foreign-language college in the southern city of Busan. Fire officials said they had difficulty reaching the resort which had recorded more than 50cm of snowfall in the last week. The resort owner, Kolon business group, issued a public apology over the disaster, promising full compensation and support for the victims. A police official said the probe into the disaster would begin immediately.
“We will conduct a full investigation to determine the cause of the incident and punish all those who might be responsible for this tragedy,” Choi Mun-tae, chief detective at Gyeongju Police Station, told reporters. The investigation is likely to focus on whether snow had been cleared from the roof of the auditorium and whether the building was an authorised structure that met safety standards.
The city of Gyeongju is a popular tourism spot for both Korean and international travellers. Once the capital of the Silla kingdom, it boasts numerous historical sites and is located at the southern fringe of the Taebaek mountains.
The Mauna Ocean Resort is a sprawling holiday complex nestled on a mountainside complete with holiday villas and a golf course. – AFP