Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Slum fire spreads in shadow of Seoul’s skyscrapers

SEOUL, South Korea ( Associated Press) – A fire destroyed about 60 makeshift homes Friday in a densely populated neighborhood surrounded by some of the wealthiest streets in South Korea’s ultra-modern capital Seoul.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze in Guryeong city in about five hours and there were no reports of casualties or damage.

Shin Yong-ho, an official with the fire department in Seoul’s Gangnam district, said rescuers checked the areas affected by the fire and all residents were believed to have been evacuated.

More than 800 firefighters, police officers and civil servants brought the flames under control and were in charge of the evacuations caused by the blaze which started at around 06:30 am.

Pictures showed firefighters fighting the blaze under a thick cloud of white smoke that blanketed a city known for its dense rows of tiny houses, as helicopters sprayed water from above.

Later, rescuers in orange suits surveyed the charred landscape amid patches of gray smoke with the capital’s glittering skyscrapers in the background.

“How could this happen during the Lunar New Year holiday?” Kim Sung-han, a 66-year-old resident of the town, told The Associated Press, referring to one of the country’s biggest holidays, which begins over the weekend. And will last till Tuesday.

He said, “I had to run out of the house with only these clothes” without being able to carry anything else. “I can’t go to work (…) how difficult it is to live.”

Lee Woon-cheol, one of the community leaders there, said residents were able to quickly alert others to what was happening and firefighters went door-to-door to help neighbors locate and evacuate.

“A lot of electrical short-circuit accidents happen here,” Li told YTN television. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

Kim Ah-reum, an official in Gangnam district, said about 500 residents were taken to nearby facilities such as school gyms. Officials said most of them are expected to return home, but at least 45 people whose homes have been leveled or severely damaged will be temporarily staying in a hotel.

Some of the 60 houses that were burned were uninhabitable.

Guryeong, a slum located near some of Seoul’s most expensive real estate and commercial districts, has for years been a symbol of the country’s stark wage disparities.

The town has been damaged several times by fire over the years, a vulnerability that is linked to its homes built of easily flammable materials. Another fire destroyed eleven homes in March and floods forced the evacuation of about a hundred people last August.

Guryeong, which has about 670 homes although not all are occupied, was built in the 1980s as a settlement for people evicted from their neighborhoods due to large-scale evictions and redevelopment projects in the capital.

Tens of thousands of people were evicted from their homes in slums and low-income neighborhoods during those years, a process seen by the country’s then-military leaders as important to beautify the city for foreign visitors ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympics Was.


Associated Press video reporters Yong Ho Kim and Yong Joon Chang contributed to this report.

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