|Time 5:52 p.m. KST|
Suspect(s) Lee Joon, Lee Han-Sang
Number of deaths 502
|Non-fatal injuries 937|
Charges Negligence, bribery
Date 29 June 1995
Location Seoul, South Korea
|Cause Structural Overload, Punching Shear|
Similar Daegu subway fire, Pangyo Techno Valley ve, Sinking of MV Sewol, Collapse of Hotel New World, Asiana Airlines Flight 733
Seconds from disaster sampoong department store collapse
The Sampoong Department Store collapse (Korean: 삼풍백화점 붕괴 사고) was a structural failure that occurred on June 29, 1995, in the Seocho-gu district of Seoul, South Korea. The collapse is the largest peacetime disaster in South Korean history as 502 people died and 937 were injured. It was the deadliest modern building collapse until the September 11 attacks in New York City, and the deadliest non-deliberate building collapse until the 2013 Savar building collapse near Dhaka, Bangladesh.
- Seconds from disaster sampoong department store collapse
- Rescue and recovery
- Notable survivors
- Site today
- Popular culture
In the events leading up to the 1988 Summer Olympics, there was a large development boom in the Seoul area. Because of bans against international construction contractors signing contracts for projects in Seoul, most buildings were being erected by South Korean companies, who typically built the structures quickly because of the large number of projects assigned to them.
The Sampoong Group began construction of the Sampoong department store in 1987 over a tract of land previously used as a landfill. The building's plans originally called for a residential apartment with four floors, and the apartments were to be built by Woosung Construction. Instead, during construction the blueprints were changed by the future chairman of the building, Lee Joon, to instead create a large department store. This involved cutting away a number of support columns to install escalators. When Woosung refused to carry out the changes, Lee ignored warnings, fired him, and used his own building company to complete construction. The building was completed in late 1989, and the Sampoong Department Store opened to the public on July 7, 1990, attracting an estimated 40,000 people per day during the building's five years of existence. The store consisted of north and south wings connected by an atrium.
The completed building was a flat-slab structure, without crossbeams or a steel skeleton, which effectively meant that there was no way to transfer the load across the floors. To maximise the floor space, Lee Joon ordered the floor columns to be reduced to be 24 inches (61 cm) thick, instead of the minimum of 31 inches (79 cm) in the original blueprint that was required for the building to stand safely. In addition, columns were spaced 36 feet (11 m) apart to maximize retail space, a decision that also meant that there was more load on each column than there would have been if the columns were closer together.
A fifth floor was originally planned to house a roller skating rink; it was added later to comply with zoning regulations that prevented the entire building from being used as a department store. However, Lee changed the plan for the fifth floor to include eight restaurants instead. A construction company tasked with completing the extension advised that the structure would not support another floor but was fired, and another company was hired to complete the project. The restaurant floor had a heated concrete base referred to as ondol, which has hot water pipes going through it; the presence of the 4-foot-thick (1.2 m) ondol greatly increased the weight and thickness of the slab. As a result of the fifth floor's presence, the columns were supporting four times the maximum weight that they had been designed to bear.
In addition, the building's air conditioning unit was also installed on the roof, creating a 45-tonne (50-ton) load that was four times the design limit. In 1993, the air conditioning units were dragged across the delicate roof, resulting in cracking. The units were moved over column 5E, where the most visible cracks in the floor of the fifth level were seen before the collapse. The cracks in the columns worsened because the columns supporting the fifth floor were mismatched with the ones supporting the floors below it.
In April 1995, cracks began to appear in the ceiling of the south wing's fifth floor. The only response by Lee and his management staff involved moving merchandise and stores from the top floor to the basement.
On the morning of June 29, the number of cracks in the area increased dramatically, prompting managers to close the top floor and shut the air conditioning off. The store management failed to shut the building down or issue formal evacuation orders, as the number of customers in the building was unusually high, and it did not want to lose the day's revenue. However, the executives themselves left the premises as a precaution.
When civil engineering experts were invited to inspect the structure, a cursory check revealed that the building was at risk of collapse; the National Geographic Channel documentary programme Seconds From Disaster indicates that the facility's manager was examining the slab in one of the restaurants on the fifth floor only hours before the collapse, when, unknown to him, vibration from air conditioning was radiating through the cracks in the concrete columns, and the floor opened up.
Five hours before the collapse, the first of several loud bangs was heard emanating from the top floors, as the vibration of the air conditioning caused the cracks in the slabs to widen further. Amid customer reports of vibration, the air conditioning was turned off, but the cracks in the floors had already grown to 10 cm wide. Around then, it was realized that collapse of the building was inevitable, and an emergency board meeting was held. The directors suggested to Lee that all customers should be evacuated, but Lee angrily refused to do so for fear of revenue losses. However, Lee himself left the building safely before the collapse occurred. Lee did not even inform his own daughter-in-law, Chu Kyung Young, who was one of the employees in the building, of the imminent danger. She became trapped in the rubble and was rescued only days later.
At about 5:00 p.m., Korea Standard Time (UTC+9:00), the fifth floor ceiling began to sink, and store workers blocked customer access to the fifth floor. According to Seconds From Disaster, the store was packed with hundreds of shoppers 57 minutes before the collapse, but Lee did not close the store or carry out repairs during that time. When the building started to produce cracking sounds at about 5:52 p.m., workers began to sound alarms and evacuate the building, but it was too late.
Around 5:52 p.m., the roof gave way, and the air conditioning units crashed through into the already-overloaded fifth floor. The main columns, weakened to allow the insertion of the escalators, collapsed in turn, and the building's south wing pancaked into the basement. Within 20 seconds of the disaster, all the columns in the south wing gave way, killing 502 people and trapping more than 1,500 inside. The disaster resulted in about ₩270 billion (approximately US$216 million) worth of property damage.
Rescue and recovery
Rescue crews were on the scene within minutes of the disaster, with cranes and other heavy equipment being brought in the next day. However, authorities announced that they would call off the rescue for fear that the unstable remains of the store could come down, putting many of the rescuers at risk. Massive protests, especially from friends and relatives of those still missing, compelled officials to continue looking for survivors, with the remains of the store being steadied by guide cables. After nearly a week, the focus was on removing the debris, but construction crews were careful to check for victims.
Two days after the collapse, some officials said that anybody who was still in the building must have already died; therefore, further efforts would be made only towards "recovery", not "rescue." However, people can survive much longer. Despite the sweltering heat, those who were not rescued in the first few days avoided dehydration by drinking rainwater. The last to be rescued, 19-year-old Park Seung-hyun (박승현; 朴昇賢), was pulled from the wreckage 17 days after the collapse with a few scratches. She said that she heard the sounds of other survivors drowning in the water used for fire suppression.
There was widespread criticism across the country because of the prevalence of looting that occurred at the collapsed building. During the first few hours of the incident, many passersby took advantage of the chaos and disorder to loot the site of valuable merchandise. Some of the incidents were caught on surveillance cameras. Looting also occurred in the abandoned and uncollapsed north wing of the building, and cash registers were targeted as well. Some looters even scavenged through the personal belongings of the victims to search for valuables.
The investigation was headed by Professor Lan Chung of Dankook University's engineering school. Shortly after the collapse, leaking gas was suspected as the probable cause because two gas explosions had occurred elsewhere in the city that year. However, the fires in the rubble were from burning automotive gasoline coming from crushed cars parked in the underground garage, and a gas explosion would have been significantly larger. In addition, it was widely feared that there had been a terrorist attack, with North Korea as the prime suspect. However, the fact the building collapsed downward, with little debris thrown outward, ruled out a significant explosion, according to US and South Korean experts.
Once the investigation focused on structural failure, it was initially believed the building's poorly-laid foundation and the fact it was built on unstable ground both led to the failure. Investigation of the rubble revealed that a substandard concrete mix of cement and sea water and poorly-reinforced concrete was used for the ceilings and walls.
Further investigation revealed that the building was built with incorrect application of a technique called "flat slab construction". Reinforced concrete buildings are often built by using columns and beams, with the floor slab supported over the full length of the beams. "Flat slab construction" does not use beams but supports the floor slab directly on the columns. The area of floor around the columns must be reinforced in order to carry the load; even then, if the columns are too narrow, they can punch through the slab. However, examination of the building showed the concrete columns installed were only 60 cm in diameter, below the required 80 cm shown in the plans. Worse still, the number of steel reinforcing bars embedded into the concrete was 8, not the required 16, which gave the building only half its needed strength. Steel reinforcements intended to strengthen the concrete floor were placed 10 cm from the top instead of 5 cm, decreasing the structure's strength by about another 20%.
Ironically, one of the changes that contributed to the collapse was the installation of a safety feature. Fire shields were installed around all escalators to prevent the spread of fire from floor to floor, but to install them, the builders cut into the support columns, reducing their diameter further. The reduced diameter concentrated the burden on a smaller area of supported slab, leading to an eventual puncturing of the slab. Those factors, along with the addition of a fifth floor including restaurants and heavy restaurant equipment, all contributed to the building's eventual failure. However, the original building design would have been more than twice as strong as needed to remain erect, and the flawed structure managed to stand for almost five years.
Investigators finally pinpointed the direct cause of the collapse, known as the "trigger" or tipping point, in the building's history. It was revealed that two years before the collapse, the building's three rooftop air-conditioning units had been moved because of noise complaints from neighbors on the east side of the building. The building's managers admitted noticing cracks on the roof during the move, but instead of lifting them with a crane, the units were put on rollers and dragged across the roof, further destabilizing the surface by each unit's immense weight. Cracks formed in the roof slabs and the main support columns were forced downward; column 5E took a direct hit, forming cracks in the position connected to the fifth-floor restaurants. According to survivor accounts, each time that the air conditioners were switched on, the vibrations radiated through the cracks, reaching the supporting columns and widening the cracks, over the course of two years. On the day of the tragedy, although the units were shut off, it was too late; the structure had suffered irreversible damage, and the fifth floor slab around column 5E finally gave way.
During his interrogation, Lee Joon sparked further controversy by saying that his main concern was that "the collapse not only harmed the customers, but also inflicted great financial damage to [my] company". Lee Joon was charged with criminal negligence and received a prison sentence of ten-and-a-half years. However, Lee's sentence was reduced to seven years on appeal in April 1996. On October 4, 2003, a few days after being released, Lee died of heart failure related to high blood pressure and diabetes.
His son, Lee Han-Sang, the store's president, received seven years for accidental homicide and corruption; he later worked for religious causes in Mongolia. City officials Lee Chung-Woo and Hwang Chol-Min, in charge of overseeing the construction of the building, were also found to have been bribed into concealing the illegal changes and poor construction. As a result, the participating officials, including a former chief administrator of the Seocho-gu district, were also jailed. Other parties sentenced included a number of Sampoong Department Store executives and the company responsible for completing the building.
The settlement involved 3,293 cases, totaling ₩375.8 billion (about $350 million). The former chaebol Lee family was stripped of all of their possessions and assets to cover the costs. The Sampoong Group was thus disbanded.
The initial reaction was enormous public outrage that led to months of demonstration on the streets. The disaster later led to skepticism and fears regarding safety standards on other engineering projects undertaken as South Korea experienced an economic boom during the 1980s and 1990s, and it resulted in a review of South Korean safety regulations; the incident also revealed the level of corruption among city officials, who were willing to accept payoffs with little regard for public safety.
The remains of the building were demolished shortly after the collapse, and the site later remained vacant up until 2000. The former location of the department store is now home to a luxury apartment complex, Acrovista Apartments, whose construction began in 2001 (but not without complaints from some of the victims' families, who wanted a memorial on the site instead) and was completed in 2004.
The Yangjae Citizen's Forest has a sculpture made in memory of the collapse.