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[Newsmaker] South Korean gyms face scrutiny after Jecheon deadly fire

South Korean police looking into the deadly fire that killed 29 people at a fitness center in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province, are set to request an arrest warrant Tuesday morning for the building’s managers, who allegedly violated fire safety rules, according to a police official on Monday.

Visitors pay their respects to the 29 victims of Thursday’s fire in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province, at a memorial set up in Jecheon Gymnasium on Sunday. Yonhap
Visitors pay their respects to the 29 victims of Thursday’s fire in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province, at a memorial set up in Jecheon Gymnasium on Sunday. Yonhap

Earlier Monday, police raided the homes of the owner, surnamed Lee, and custodian, surnamed Kim, of the commercial building in Jecheon, a day after they were taken into custody for questioning on suspicions that the two poorly managed the building where victims were trapped in a sauna on the second floor.

The eight-story building housed a fitness center, restaurants and a public sauna.

Police confirmed water sprinklers inside the building did not function during the blaze Thursday, and one of the emergency exits was blocked, a violation of the fire prevention law.

The fire and its toll have been called “extremely preventable” by experts. The blaze has also raised questions in a country where safety regulations are often weakly enforced.

“After I heard about what happened in Jecheon. I decided to work out at home on my own out of fears that a similar incident could happen to me as well,” Kim Hee-jin, a 47-year-old housewife, told The Korea Herald.

Another gym-goer, Park Jae-yeong, 29, said he and other members of his health club in Seoul plan to talk to the club’s manager to ensure the building is properly managed and safety measures are functioning in time of emergency.

“It seems building owners and managers easily ignore safety protocols in a quest for profits. And I want to make sure that won’t be happening around me,” Park said.

According to Jecheon City, the external walls of the building were covered with highly flammable polyethylene cladding, the same material that caused an inferno at an apartment in Uijeongbu, some 20 kilometers north of Seoul, which killed four and injured 124 just two years ago.

National forensic experts concluded Saturday the fire started from the first-floor ceiling of the parking lot, quickly engulfing eight stories in just seven minutes. Among the dead, 20 suffocated from toxic smoke in the female sauna.

In the wake of the latest disaster, concerns continue over cheap flammable cladding that also caused the Uijeongbu apartment inferno just two years ago.

Experts say the sandwich panels of Dryvit cladding, which is wrapped around the outside of a building for energy efficiency, allowed the fire to spread quickly, calling for stricter regulations to ban its use.

“So many more buildings have already been wrapped by the flammable cladding, so the government should come up with solutions to ensure fire safety,” said Kong Ha-sung, a professor of the Department of Fire Safety at Kyungil University.

Following the Uijeongbu fire in 2015, the law was revised to ban using flammable cladding when constructing buildings six stories and higher, but the Jecheon fitness center was not affected by the regulation as it was constructed in 2012.

A memorial altar for the Jecheon victims has been set up in the city for citizens to express their condolences. President Moon Jae-in has paid a visit to the memorial and ordered a thorough investigation into the accident. 

By Bak Se-hwan (