Saturday, October 02, 2010

that's crazy

A recent fire in a 38-story luxury high-rise apartment in Busan, South Korea shot from the fourth floor to the top of the building in a mere 20 minutes. Citizens are naturally worried about the safety of the buildings they're living in.

I can't help feeling that this is, in some ways, the Seongsu Bridge disaster all over again: people will recall the discoveries made in the 1990s about the corners cut during the bridge's construction. Fire safety rarely seems to be a major concern in Asia, despite the crowded conditions and the dangerous potential inherent in a population that loves to smoke and drink. Fires in the US often begin with a drunken slob falling asleep on his couch with a smoldering cigarette between his fingers; in Korea, population density multiplies the danger.

Of course, sometimes pure negligence and stupidity are to blame, as seems to be the case here, according to the above-linked JoongAng Daily news article:

“[The fire] appeared to have started in the janitors’ room and laundry on the fourth floor,” said a police official. “We have testimonies that scrap paper was burned in the janitors’ room.”
I have no point of reference for how fast this blaze shot through the new building, but for a fire to take only 20 minutes to ascend over 30 floors seems frightening. If anyone has any information on recent fires in the US, ones that took place in relatively new luxury high-rise apartments, I'd like to do a bit of informal comparison using rate of floor-ascension as the metric.

My own quickie research leads to this:

1. A recent fire in a Toronto high rise that lasted several hours and burned unusually hot, but which appears to have remained on its floor (this article says the blaze spread sideways, to two adjacent apartments). Officials were cautious enough to wonder aloud about the structural integrity of the building.

2. A February 2010 fire at a high rise in Florida involved minor damage and no injuries. The fire was on the top floor, and didn't have time to eat its way downward before it was put out.

The JoongAng Daily news article notes that people are worried about the need to update fire safety codes:

Experts also worry that fire regulations have not been updated, although the number of high-rises has increased rapidly. In 2005, 60,000 households lived in apartment buildings taller than 30 stories, but in 2007 it went up to 120,000. This year, 260,000 households are in high-rise apartments.

“Construction companies and building owners oppose stricter safety regulations because it will cost them a lot more,” said a fire department official.
It may take a few more such disasters before things change.



Charles said...

This has been all over the news here. One of the problems was that there is no fire truck or other firefighting equipment in Korea that can reach above the 14th floor. So once it gets above that, you're pretty much screwed.

You would think that, somewhere along the way, someone might have thought of that.

Sean said...

Another fine example of 채일 안전(spelling?). Changing the safety codes would be too expensive for property developers? The already shoddy construction is over priced for the quality one gets.

I moved into a brand new building three years ago and from the first day was complaining about the quality of the construction. The building and the apartment look nice, but it's very superficial.

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for the comment. I share your disgust. ("Safety first" is "안전 제일"-- anjeon jaeil.) When I was writing this post, I tried to find a choice quote from Michael Breen about the Korean attitude toward quality; in his book The Koreans, he talks about the mentality that drives Koreans to construct buildings very quickly, but in a manner that later requires constant maintenance, thereby killing whatever efficiency was involved in the construction. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the quote since I don't have his book, so I had to proceed Breenlessly with the posting.

I've had mixed experience with Korean buildings. My dorm building at Sookdae seemed OK, quality-wise. My buddy Tom, by contrast, resided in an officetel that looked nice to me, but which suffered some sort of massive leakage that occurred early during his stay in the building-- leakage that was coming through a light fixture, of all things. That could have been deadly.

To be fair, US houses and apartment buildings can evince shoddy workmanship, too. The old building where I used to live, from 1998 to 2002, might be a case in point: because of poor venting and drainage, my carpet was often soaked in the summertime because the moisture from the A/C couldn't go anywhere. I had the friendly maintenance dude over several times, to no avail. My little brother David moved into my apartment in 2002, and his solution was to bring in a dehumidifier, which helped somewhat, but didn't address the basic problem.

Overall, however, I'd wager that construction and safety standards in the US and Canada are generally better than they are in South Korea. I was always nervous whenever I saw those high-rise apartment buildings in Seoul-- the ones with the huge cracks in their sides. How could anybody want to live in such places? I know I'd get hate mail for saying this to Koreans in Korea, but they should take a cue from the japanese, whose modern buildings are built to withstand routine earthquakes.


John from Daejeon said...

I wonder if "any" building in South Korea is equipped with a sprinkler system in case of a fire.

And all it would take would be one earthquake to really shake things up, and bring a lot of buildings down, around here. Just because they aren't normal for this part of the world, doesn't mean that one will never happen.

Charles said...

"I know I'd get hate mail for saying this to Koreans in Korea, but they should take a cue from the japanese, whose modern buildings are built to withstand routine earthquakes."

Funny you should mention this, but I was watching the news last night and they were talking about firefighting equipment and procedures in Japan. They showed a clip from "national fire safety day," where they were running firefighting drills the entire day. One of them had a helicopter putting out a fire in a high-rise. The reporter went on to say that Tokyo had 80 such helicopters available.

The unasked question, of course, was, "The Japanese have 80 firefighting helicopters in their capital city, they run regular drills and have an annual fire safety day, and sprinklers are mandatory in all buildings, whether office or residential: why aren't we doing this?"

I can't think of a better way to get Koreans to do something than to imply (or show) that the Japanese do it better. Hopefully something good will come of this.