TAEGU, South Korea — Angry relatives of victims of a subway fire attack confronted South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun on Thursday as he visited the scene in Taegu city where 126 people died and up to 340 are missing.
Roh, 56, who is to take office Tuesday, visited the central subway station where two trains were gutted by fire Tuesday and toured hospitals to comfort some of the 131 people receiving treatment for injuries.
The man blamed for starting the fire — and whom police said had ignited the blaze in a suicide attempt — is reportedly under heavy security in the same hospital as some of the survivors and is suffering from light burns.
After the attack, police said the suspect, identified as 56-year-old Kim Dae Han, refused to answer questions and spoke incoherently. He had once threatened to burn a hospital where he received what he considered unsatisfactory treatment, local media reported.
Han, who was a passenger on one of the trains, is reportedly mentally and physically ill and officials said he was trying to commit suicide by tossing a container of flammable liquid and then setting it on fire in the train he was on.
Despite his actions the public’s ire was directed not so much at Han as at the lack of fire safety features and emergency preparations in the Taegu subway system.
Roh was on the receiving end of some of that anger after he paid his respects and delivered a wreath to a makeshift altar to the dead set up in a government building turned into a temporary emergency headquarters and reception center for victims’ families.
As Roh attempted to leave the room where the altar had been erected, four women and a man blocked the door and refused to let him pass for several minutes before stunned security officials and police escorted them away.
“I have no body, please find it for me,” screamed one woman in her 50s at Roh, as other family members joined the shouting match and tugged at his clothing.
Only a few dozen of the victims have been identified and forensic scientists say they will need DNA testing to identify many others who were burned beyond recognition, a process that could take months rather than weeks.
On Wednesday, some 200 relatives searching for clues about their lost loved ones scuffled with police and city officials. An unruly crowd mobbed Prime Minister Kim Suk Soo during a visit on the same day.
President Kim Dae Jung declared South Korea’s fourth largest city some 200 km southeast of Seoul a disaster area, promising financial aid and Roh said he will see to it that the support is forthcoming.
“I express deep condolences over your pain and suffering,” Roh said after a 30-minute meeting with a delegation of bereaved relatives. “The government will give as much support as possible to ease your pain.”
Roh also addressed reports that more lives were lost in the disaster because of a lack of fire precautions and safety measures as well as other human errors. “We will take safety measure by every means possible to ensure that this tragedy will not happen again,” he said.
Police probing what went wrong were questioning subway controllers who allowed the second train to arrive at the station several minutes after the blaze had started in the first train.
“The driver had intended to pull the train to a halt at the station to help passengers escape quickly rather than stop in the subway tunnel and let them out on the tracks,” one subway official said.
Most of the dead were found in the second train after the fire triggered an automatic shutdown of the power supply to the station and the doors jammed shut, trapping passengers inside.
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