Siege Diaries 6/29/2020

Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of what still stands as one of the deadliest non-deliberate building collapses in history–the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in Seoul, South Korea.  Unlike the 20th anniversary of the disaster, the grim date seems so far to have passed with little notice in media.  I guess there are other more proximate worries this year.   But it certainly provides an object lesson as to what can happen when the advice of experts is ignored in favour of “the economy.”

In 1987, in the midst of a huge building boom ahead of South Korea’s hosting of the Summer Olympics, a developer began building a four-storey apartment building in the upscale Gangnam district (yep, the one from the song) of Seoul.   In the grip of the city’s burst of unbridled capitalism, the owner decided, after construction had begun, that it would bring in more money as a department store.  So the interior was redesigned, removing key support columns to accommodate escalators, and adding a fifth storey.  When contractors complained that this was against building codes, they were fired.   He changed his mind again, changing the skating rink planned for that floor to an eating garden with heated floors, which put even more stress on the scaled-back number of columns–as much as four times what they had been designed to carry.  Once the brigh pink Sampoong Department Store opened in 1990, neighbours complained about the loud air conditioning units on the roof, so they were moved in 1993–not by lifting them out and over to the new position, but by dragging them across the roof.  Forty-five tons of machinery was positioned over just one column–which soon began to show cracks, which got bigger every time the air conditioning came on and began vibrating down that single, fragile support.

The Sampoong Department Store was doomed.  It had about two more years of life left until twenty-five years ago today, on June 29, 1995, the entire structure collapsed.  The morning of the collapse, the cracks were obvious up on the fifth floor, so the floor was closed and the air conditioning shut off.  The executives left the building, but the crowds that day were particularly large, so the regular employees and shoppers were neither notified of the issue or told to evacuate.  Throughout the day, loud crackles and bangs were heard, and the cracks visibly widened.  About an hour before the collapse, the fifth floor began to sink.  At about 5:52 pm, in over 500 people were killed and 1500 trapped in less than 20 seconds, as the entire structure pancaked.  In the aftermath, Seoul erupted into months of public demonstrations and outrage.

What caused this disaster?   Unmitigated corruption on the part of the building’s owners (who received significant jail sentences in the trial that followed), as well as with city officials who looked the other way at the violations of building codes.  Many other projects from the same era fell under scrutiny as the extent of the corruption was revealed.

The lesson learned (at least on a temporary basis)?  Ignoring science leads to disaster.  When this happens in combination with unbridled capitalism, when money becomes more important than people, disaster becomes catastrophe.

Episode of the series “Seconds from Disaster” on the collapse: