Kwangju classroom fire kills eight South Korean teenagers


SEOUL, AFP

Fire raged through a barred classroom killing eight South Korean teenagers as they took part in an all-night cramming session ahead of college entrance exams, police said Thursday.

Twenty four other students and a teacher were also injured in the blaze late Wednesday at the spartan private school which had illegally built the extra room on its rooftop with all the windows iron-barred.

A cigarette was said to have started the blaze. But police blamed the high casualties on the lack of safety facilities.

Investigators said there was only one entrance and no fire exit from the class on the top of the four-story Yeji School in the southern Seoul suburb of Kwangju. Fire-warning devices remained unfunctional, they added.

The government ordered safety checks on more than 17,000 private schools nationwide for two weeks beginning Friday.

Dozens of students were studying overnight under the supervision of a teacher when the blaze erupted in Yeji.

Firefighters brought the fire under control in half an hour, but the flames and toxic fumes quickly killed the teenagers in the packed room, witnesses said.

One 20-year-old student, Chang Hee-song, broke through a window and clung to the wall shouting out for help before he jumped to the ground, witnesses said. Chang died later in a nearby hospital.

The victims were all in the temporary rooftop structure used for intensive studying to repeat college entrance exams.

School teacher Bok So-jung told South Korean television: “The blaze appeared to have been ignited by cigarette smoking in a rest room at the entrance to the classroom.”

Police held the school chief, the building’s owner and provincial government officials for questioning.

The facility was used for storage when the building was built in 1991. But the school had illegally changed it into a classroom.

The latest incident reminded the public here of two separate tragic fire cases two years ago, where the victims were also mainly young people and a lack of safety measures contributed to their deaths.