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[Newsmaker] [Herald Interview] ‘Why does no one ever apologize?’ cries family of tunnel fire victim
Tunnel fire victim’s family lambasts the lack of apology, appropriate measures following the deaths; structural issues pointed out as main cause of disasterBy Yoon Min-sik
Published : Jan. 5, 2023 - 15:29
On Dec. 29, the life of 66-year-old Jeon ended abruptly by a fire that broke out inside a soundproof tunnel on a highway. He was one of the five who died in the deadly flame in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, which left 41 others injured and 45 cars destroyed.
In his last phone call alive, Jeon told wife it was chaos in the tunnel and that he couldn’t move the car nor open the car door.
“There was an explosion in the tunnel. It’s filled with smoke and it’s all dark. … I’m in trouble. I can’t open the door.”
Speaking to The Korea Herald on Wednesday, the bereaved family said no one has come to them to explain why Jeon had to meet such a tragic death. “There has not been anyone who expressed condolences for us. We only have each other and each other's grief,” the younger of the victim’s two daughters said.
The daughter, along with the victim's other daughter and son-in-law surnamed Son, expressed regret over the quickly waning public interest and an apparent lack of government follow-up measures, including a public apology by anyone responsible for the tragedy. On Jan. 1, Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Won Hee-ryong paid a visit to the funeral for two of the victims -- a mother and her daughter. But no such gesture has been made for Jeon’s family, they said.
“I can't but ask, would it have been this quiet if a family member of a high-ranking official had died? I doubt it very much,” said the younger daughter.
The two daughters, their husbands and children are all staying at the home of the deceased for the time being. The living room was eerily quiet, with a family photo in the room serving as a reminder of the gaping hole left in their lives.
“Grandpa has gone to a faraway place,” said the victim’s older daughter to her own child, apparently unable to share the painful truth just yet.
“We try not to think about it, and staying together helps. But we can't do this forever. This home is littered with traces of dad, and it pains me every time I'm reminded of him. We never even got to say good-bye,” she said.
Son, the son-in-law, said the bereaved families of the victims are planning a protest against the government to urge an official apology, along with a thorough investigation to see that those responsible are held accountable. “The government has no plans (for us), and they offered us no apology, not one word. They just want this over with, and we want to make sure that we are not forgotten,” he said.
Why so many casualties?
Police believe the initial point of ignition came from a truck that was passing the tunnel, which spontaneously caught fire due to a yet unspecified cause. The driver, who stopped the vehicle on the side of the tunnel and tried to extinguish the flames, fled the scene when the fire got out of control and eventually engulfed the entire structure.
The trucker is currently under investigation by the authorities, as is the waste disposal company for whom he works for, to find if the company allowed the operation of a faulty truck. It was found in the investigation that the car in question had caught fire two years ago due to electrical problems.
“Shouldn't the company also apologize to the families. It made the driver work with a deteriorating car. Yet, the people from the media are the only ones paying us a visit (after the accident),” Jeon’s second daughter said.
While the problem with the truck is what started the fire, it was the inflammable materials making up the tunnel that made it into a deadly inferno. The tunnels were made with polymethylmethacrylate, a transparent thermoplastic better known as acrylic.
This plastic is often used in sheet form and is lighter and easier to use in building structures than glass, but has a relatively-low ignition point, making it more susceptible to fire.
On Tuesday, a fire occurred at a soundproof tunnel at Jungbu Expressway which connects Gyeonggi Province and the southernmost region of Gyeongsang Province. It was found that the tunnel was also acrylic, allowing the flame to engulf the entire structure in a matter of minutes.
“The same exact accident occurred not even a week after (the Gwacheon tunnel fire). I wonder what the authorities are thinking,” the junior Jeon said.
Gong Ha-seong, professor of fire and disaster prevention at Woosuk University, said the tunnel should have used nonflammable materials. “A good alternative would've been using materials like tempered glass or thin iron plates,” he said in a recent interview with local media.
Back in 1999, the land ministry made it a rule that the soundproof wall on the road should be made of nonflammable materials, but this regulation was removed in 2012.
Another law states that equipment and facilities to extinguish fire -- such as sprinklers and fire hydrants -- should be installed on structures such as tunnels, bridges and dams, but that does not recognize the soundproof tunnels as tunnels, exempting them from such measures.
It was also found that the barrier system to prohibit cars from entering tunnels in case of emergency was not fully operational during the Gwacheon disaster. The lanes in the direction from Anyang to Seongnam were blocked, but the opposite lanes were left open, as the fire cut off the electricity.
All five deaths came from the lanes that were not blocked off.
Aside from Jeon, the victims included a woman about to get married in July, a mother and a daughter, who sent desperate messages to their families during the accident.
Jeon’s bereaved family shared a recording of the victim’s last phone call with his wife, out of a wish that the incident would not be quickly forgotten by the public.
The following transcript are the final words of the victim, translated from Korean to English. While the more graphic description of the situation has been removed, reader discretion is advised.
Jeon: This is chaos!
Jeon: There was an explosion in the tunnel. It’s filled with smoke and it’s all dark.
Lee: Which tunnel is it?
Jeon: It’s a tunnel in Gwacheon, going over the Seongnamsan mountain. There’s chaos in the road, the smoke is filling up.
Lee: Gwangmyeong tunnel?
Jeon: Not the Gwangmyeong tunnel, the one in Gwacheon, near Anyang. I’m in trouble!
Lee: Hold on a second.
Jeon: I can’t see anything.
Lee: You are inside the tunnel?
Jeon: No, before entering the tunnel, there’s (a structure) made of plastic.
Lee: So you’re not in the tunnel. Is there anything wrong with the car?
Jeon: Everything’s in disarray!
Lee: Can’t you back it up?
Jeon: I can’t, everywhere is blocked off by cars.
Lee: Was there a collision?
Jeon: No, there wasn’t a collision. There’s smoke everywhere … Oh, I’m in trouble. I can’t open the door. What should I do?
Lee: There isn’t anything I can do.
Jeon: No, there isn’t. I’m in trouble. I can’t open the door. I’m going to hang up now.
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