June 29, 1995: The Sampoong Department Store Collapse


WHAT HAPPENED?


June 29, 1995 brought about the deadliest non-deliberate building collapse in history at the time. The Sampoong Department Store in Seoul, South Korea collapsed, killing 502 people and injuring 937.


Though the collapse itself was not intentional, 2 people were charged with negligence and found guilty of manslaughter for the collapse, which was preventable.

BACKGROUND BEFORE THE COLLAPSE


Leading up to the 1988 Summer Olympics which were to be hosted in Seoul, there was a boom in development in the area. International construction contractors were not able to take on any of the projects, so South Korean companies were entirely overloaded with work and thus, often built structures quickly to get through their work load.


The development of the Sampoong Department Store began in 1987 over land that used to be a landfill. The building was initially supposed to be a residential apartment complex, but during development, was shifted to a large department store. Thus, they had to remove a lot of support columns to add escalators and new floors instead. Woosung Construction refused to carry out the changes, so Lee Joon, the future chairman of the building, ignored their warnings, fired them, and used his own company to complete the work.


The building was finished in late 1989 and it opened to the public in 1990, attracting about 40,000 people per day in the 5 years it stood. But the building did not have any crossbeams or a steel skeleton, which meant the load wasn't transferred across all 5 floors. Lee had also made many other structural changes that made it more susceptible to collapse.


The 5th floor was originally not supposed to exist, then was supposed to be built to house a roller skating rink, and ultimately ended up housing 8 restaurants. The construction company advised that the building could not support another floor, but was fired. When the 5th floor was erected, the columns were supporting 4 times the maximum weight they were supposed to be holding.


And to add insult to injury, 3 15-ton air conditioning units were installed on the roof that also put the weight well over the limit. In 1993, the units were dragged across the roof, resulting in a crack.

THE COLLAPSE


By April 1995, the cracks were beginning to become more noticeable, but Lee's solution was just to move some stores from the top floor to the basement.


On the morning of June 29, 1995, the cracks were getting more dramatic, so the managers closed parts of the top floor, but did not issue any evacuation orders. The amount of guests inside of the mall was unusually high, so they did not want to lose the day's revenue. However, the managers were worried, so they left the premises themselves as a precaution.


Civil engineering experts were invited to inspect the building, and they revealed that the building was at immediate risk of collapse. 5 hours before the collapse, a loud bang was heard, the first of many, from the top floor. The vibration from the air conditioning was causing the cracks to continue to widen. An emergency board meeting was held when the managers realized the building was going down.


The directors all encouraged the immediate evacuation of the building, but Lee did not want to lose the day's revenue. However, he left himself, not even bothering to warn his daughter-in-law who was in imminent danger inside of the building.


At around 5:00 PM, the fifth floor ceiling began to sink. Store workers closed off access to the 5th floor. Even as it began to sink and hundreds of shoppers were still walking around without a care in the world, Lee did not carry out any repairs or evacuate the building. The store began to make cracking sounds at 5:52 PM, and the workers tried to start an evacuation of the building. But it was too late.


The roof gave in and the air conditioning units crashed through the 5th floor, which was already overloaded. The main columns that had been weakened to insert the escalators and collapsed. In less than 20 seconds, all of the columns on the south wing of the store had given way, killing 502 shoppers. More than 1,500 people were trapped inside the rubble. The disaster resulted in about $270 billion ($364 million in US 2020 currency) worth of property damage.


Rescue crews were on the scene immediately, but Seoul's mayor announced the rescues would be called off due to fears that the rest of the store would collapse. Massive protests broke out from friends and family of the people still trapped inside, encouraging them to work to find survivors inside. After nearly a week, the focus was on removing debris, but they kept their eyes out for trapped survivors.


2 days after the collapse, officials believed that anybody still inside would already be dead, and thus the efforts were focused on "recovery" and not "rescue". Some of the victims who were not rescued in the first few days were able to starve off dehydration by drinking rainwater. One man was rescued after 9 days, and told rescuers that trapped survivors had drowned from the rain and the water from the hoses used to put out the fire. 18-year-old Yoo Ji-hwan was pulled out after surviving for 12 days. And the last person rescued, 19-year-old Park Seung-hyun, was pulled out 17 days after the collapse with only a few scratches.

INVESTIGATION AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS


Dankook University's Professor Lan Chung, an engineer, headed the investigation. Leaking gas had been the suspected cause of the collapse initially because there had been 2 gas explosions in the city that year, but he did not find evidence of such an explosion. There were also concerns that there had been a terrorist attack, but the downward nature of the collapse ruled out an intentional explosion.


That lead to structural failure. Once they had aligned on that as the cause, they still did not believe it was negligence, but the unstable foundation it was built upon. But continued investigation proved that the building had been erected incorrectly. The lack of beams needed, the narrowness of the columns and the excessive weight all contributed. There should have been 16 steel reinforcement bars to the store's 8, reducing the strength by 20%.


Additionally, a fire shield had been installed to prevent the spread of fire from floor to floor, but this required the support columns to be cut further, which ironically contributed to the collapse.


Investigators were able to pinpoint the direct cause of the collapse: the moving of the air conditioning units 2 years before. They had been moved due to noise complaints, and instead of moving them with a crane, they were put on rollers and dragged across the roof, leading to the original cracking. It got worse and worse throughout the 2 years, and the ceiling finally could not take the weight anymore.


Lee continued to fret further about the financial losses than the loss of life. He was found guilty of criminal negligence on December 27, 1995, and was sentenced to 10 and a half years. It was reduced to 7 and a half years on appeal, though the prosecution argued for 20. He died on October 4, 2003, shortly after his release from prison.


Lee Joon's son, and the store's CEO Lee Han-Sang also received jail time, 7 years for accidental homicide and corruption.


Chung-Woo, a city official and chief administrator of the area where the store was located was sentenced to 3 years for bribery, as was a former area chief Hwang Chol-Min who accepted $12 million in bribes from Lee. He was sentenced to 10 years.


The families had asked for $361,000 per victim. The City of Seoul offered to pay $220,000 for each, arguing that they could not pay more. By August of 1995, the Lee family submitted a memo to the city, offering their entire wealth to compensate the victims. The settlement involved 3,293 cases totaling nearly $300 million 2020 US dollars, or $375.8 billion in 1995 Korean money.


The immediate reaction was extreme outrage that led to months of protests on the streets, and skepticism regarding safety in other recently developed buildings. The incident also revealed a lot of corruption among city officials who accepted payoffs without caring about public safety.


Though the families of the 502 victims wished for a memorial to be build on the grounds of the collapse, the memorial ended up being built elsewhere and the land sold to a private developer. Now, a luxury apartment complex lives on the grounds where 502 people lost their lives in 1995.


This is unfortunately not the first story I have written involving mass loss of life at the hands of preventable negligence in the spirit of speed and money. It probably won't be the last, either. Skirted safety features have lead to many disastrous fires and stampedes in clubs, bars and factories. When you care more about money than human lives, you will be willing to ignore the recommendations of those around you and continue with a project even once you know it may be deadly.


In this event, Lee Joon decided to fire those who advised against his risky build, and even as the building began to fall apart, cared more about the day's revenue than the lives inside. Ultimately, I wonder if the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars per hundreds of victims, the collapse itself, and over 7 years of jail time was worth 1 day's revenue at his store.


Though this wasn't an intentional disaster, like a shooting or bomb, it was a preventable disaster, all the way up until the morning it happened. Some lethal disasters are tragic and completely random, but some just needed one person to speak up and 502 people would still be alive. This was one of those times, and it occurred 25 years ago today.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sampoong_Department_Store_collapse


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