South Korea’s construction boom in the 1980s and 1990s often meant corners were cut, rules bent and palms greased; the Sampoong Department Store was no exception. When work started in 1987, planning permission had been granted for a four-storey office block. But property developer Lee Joon redesigned it as a department store, with modifications which compromised its safety. His building contractors objected but they were simply sacked and replaced. The bright-pink store opened in 1989 and was a huge success, with around 4,000 shoppers a day ‘thinking pink’.
Lee Joon decided to add another floor. Further retail development was prohibited, so he opted for restaurants and a pool. Again his contractors protested, saying that the combined weight of additional concrete and air-conditioning equipment would be dangerous. Like their predecessors, they were fired.
On June 29 1995, when cracks appeared in the ceiling of the fifth floor, it was simply closed off.
The shop was particularly busy that day and management were unwilling to evacuate the entire building. By lunchtime the cracks had widened and the fourth-floor ceiling was sagging, so the upper floors were shut. The staff finally sounded the alarm at 17.50 and a few minutes later the roof caved in, the support columns gave way and, in less than 20 seconds, a huge section of the five-storey building collapsed into the basement, trapping shoppers and staff.
Thanks to the efficiency of the rescue team, hundreds were pulled out from the wreckage, the last survivor being freed after 17 days. Initially the disasters was blamed on a gas leak or terrorism, but investigations showed that the building had been seriously overloaded and constructed with inferior concrete. Loo Joon was imprisoned, as were several city officials. The corruption came as no surprise to the people of South Korea.
When: June 29 1995
Where: Seoul, South Korea
Death toll: 501 were killed and 937 Injured.
You should know: The massive concrete floors of the fifth floor restaurants were fitted with pipes for hot-water heating, in traditional Korean restaurants diners sit on the floor and underfloor heating Is essential in cold weather.