SEOUL, South Korea — A blaze at a construction site southeast of Seoul killed 38 people Wednesday in one of the deadliest fires to hit South Korea in recent years, police officers and local news reports said.
With emergency workers still looking for one other person who may remain trapped inside a building filled with toxic smoke, they have so far found 38 bodies, Seo Seung-hyeon, a local fire department chief, said during a news briefing. Ten others were injured, including eight who were in serious condition, he said.
When the fire broke out, 78 workers were believed to be working in the four-story warehouse under construction in Icheon, 50 miles southeast of Seoul, the fire department said.
The blaze was the third devastating workplace fire to hit South Korea in recent years, and came as President Moon Jae-in has struggled to make good on his promise to put an end to the man-made disasters that have convulsed the country since a 2014 ferry sinking killed more than 300 people.
The fire department said it was investigating the cause of the blaze. But Seo said that investigators suspected that it was caused by an explosion in an underground level, where some workers used urethane, a combustible chemical used for insulation work.
Dozens of fire engines were sent to control the flames. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun urged his government to dedicate every available resource to rescue the workers believed to be trapped in the warehouse.
The fire was extinguished in three hours, but firefighters searching for the missing workers were hampered by toxic gas in the warehouse.
Photos and TV reports showed orange-red flames and black clouds of smoke engulfing the warehouse and responders bringing out bodies from the building on stretchers to ambulances outside.
The Yonhap news agency quoted a survivor as saying that the smoke filled the building so quickly that he could barely find his way out.
South Korea, which has had strong economic growth in recent decades, has been prone to major disasters despite its leaders’ repeated promises to make the country safer.
In 2014, an overloaded ferry capsized, killing more than 300 people, most of them high school students. In 2018, a fire at a hospital that doubled as a nursing home killed 47 people.
The blaze came two years after a hospital fire in the southern city of Miryang killed 41 people in a building that lacked sprinklers. That disaster occurred a month after another fire killed 29 people at a fitness center.
Moon took power in May 2017, replacing his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and jailed on corruption charges following weeks of huge anti-government protests. South Koreans grew cold toward Park after she was accused of mishandling the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster.
Keenly aware of that recent history, Moon repeatedly promised South Koreans that they would “never have to shed tears because of safety issues.” He also vowed to “end governmental incompetence and irresponsibility” in making South Korea safer.
But after the Miryang fire, Moon said he felt “crushed” that his promise went unfulfilled.
In recent weeks, Moon’s government has won global plaudits for its successful efforts to contain the coronavirus epidemic. His party won a landslide in the April 15 parliamentary elections largely seen as a midterm referendum on Moon’s performance as president.