February 18, 2003
Daegu, South Korea
A fire set on a subway train leads to the deaths of 197 and 147 injuries

The fire was started at 9:53 a.m. by a man carrying a plastic milk container holding a flammable substance, either paint thinner or gasoline. Within two minutes, the flames engulfed the 6-car train. The fire damaged the train’s power system which locked the doors, trapping some of the passengers within. Minutes later, at 9:57 a.m., a second train pulled into the station; the fire had also damaged the station’s communication system and the second train could not be warned. The second train’s driver fled the vehicle upon seeing the fire ahead, but failed to open the doors before his escape. Because of this, the 79 people inside the second train were trapped and killed.

The station was not equipped with sprinklers and the flames and smoke from the fire delayed rescuers. The fire was extinguished 3 hours after it began leaving 198 people killed and a further 147 injured.

Firefighters walk through the wreckage of the burned subway car

Some victims had escaped the flames of the train cars but succumbed to smoke and fumes at the station platform. Rescuers found “piles of bodies of passengers” in front of emergency doors which had been lowered automatically to contain the fire and prevent its spread to other areas of the station.

The mother of one of the victims, a 20-year-old, told reporters of her last conversation with her daughter: “‘Mom, there’s a fire in the subway and I can’t breathe.’ I called her name three times and urged her to pull herself together, but she hung up the phone saying she couldn’t talk any more. It was too hard to breathe. The last thing she said to me was, ‘I love you, Mother.’”

The aftermath of the fire
via 한국일보

Kim Dae-han (김대한, 56) was one of those treated at the hospital, receiving treatment for burns to his legs and wrist as well as smoke inhalation. Some of the survivors also being treated recognized Kim as the man who had carried the flammable liquid and a cigarette lighter on board, including some who had wrestled with Kim in an attempt to prevent him from starting the fire. He was arrested soon after.

김대한 (Kim Dae-han)
via 시사 저널

Kim had had a stroke in 2001 which had left him partially paralyzed and suicidal. He told police he had “decided to die with others in a crowded place, rather than die by himself,” Police Lieutenant Cho Doo-won told reporters.

Kim was sentenced to death following his first trial, and to life following his second. He died of natural causes in prison on August 31, 2004.

Along with Kim, 7 subway employees — two train drivers and five officials — were arrested and charged with negligent manslaughter. The drivers were sentenced to terms of 4 years and 5 years in prison, two officials were sentenced to 3 year terms, and three officials received suspended sentences.

“대구 지하철에 불질러 192명 죽이고 끝까지 ‘변명’만 했던 김대한의 최후.” 인사이트. August 31, 2019. Accessed: February 18, 2021. https://www.insight.co.kr/news/244269
“방화범 김대한은 누구인가.” 시사저널. January 8, 2013. Accessed: February 18, 2021. https://www.sisajournal.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=136529 (Korean)
“Arsonist sets fire in South Korean subway.” History. November 13, 2009. Updated: February 14, 2020. Accessed: February 18, 2021. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/arsonist-sets-fire-in-south-korean-subway
“Man sentenced to life in prison for subway fire.” The Times [Munster, Indiana]. August 7, 2003
“Families of subway fire victims bristle at delays.” Fremont Tribune. February 19, 2003
“S. Korea subway arson toll at 124.” The Sacramento Bee. February 19, 2003

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