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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Seoul Store Collapses, at Least 27 Die

SEOUL -- At least 27 people were killed, more than 600 were injured and scores were trapped in debris when one of Seoul's leading department stores collapsed into its own basement Thursday, witnesses said.


Only half of the Sampoong Department Store was left standing after a 100-meter section of the five-story pink-painted structure collapsed while the store was crowded with evening shoppers.


"I heard a blast, and suddenly the shop wasn't there any more," said Canadian teacher Lorne Oliver, who was passing the store at the time of the disaster.


Remote cameras tracking through the rubble showed people trapped by beams and girders, their faces caked with plaster and showing the stress of shock.


Rescue officials said they feared many of those trapped were already dead.


"Scores of people are still buried but in view of the smoke coming out of the rubble most of them would have died of suffocation," an army sergeant helping the rescue operation said about three hours after the collapse.


State Korea Broadcasting System, calculating from the average number of customers of the popular department store, estimated that 1,000 people were inside the collapsed portion of the building.


Police and rescue officials could not confirm the cause of the accident but witnesses said they heard a large blast.


South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted the trade and industry ministry as saying one of its safety teams had been sent to the store after a safety supervisor found structural problems in the top floor of the department store.


Gas valves were closed after the damage was detected, a move which could have saved outbreaks of fire. As it was, only a few fires smoldered but sent smoke billowing from the entangled wreckage while fire fighters sprayed water.


A department store employee told state television signs of collapse were apparent hours before disaster struck but nothing was done.


Dazed shoppers stared at the wreckage while many shop workers, their pastel green uniforms streaked with blood and plaster, wept uncontrollably.


Merchandise from the store lay strewn dozens of meters from the store. Clothes, bags and paper goods were left flapping from a line of trees outside the store.


Helicopters hovered overhead and rescuers climbed down on to the roof of the remaining part of the store to help with the rescue.


Fleets of ambulances battled rush hour traffic to get to the store, which is situated near one of the busiest junctions of a city notorious for its chaotic traffic.


The collapse is the latest in a series of man-made disasters that have hit South Korea in recent months which have killed hundreds and caused acute embarrassment to the government of President Kim Young-sam.


More than 100 people were killed in the southeastern city of Taegu in April when a gas explosion tore through a subway construction site.


Last October, the central section of a major river bridge in Seoul collapsed during the morning rush hour killing 32 people as well as damaging South Korea's reputation as a worldwide leader in the construction industry.


The disasters have stirred a frantic debate in the local media about construction and safety standards, with many analysts blaming shortcuts taken during South Korea's headlong rush to economic development in recent decades.