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Thursday, July 1, 1999 Published at 06:50 GMT 07:50 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Teachers held in camp fire inquiry

Mothers grieve as fire services are accused of failing to arrive in time

South Korean police have reportedly detained five people including a kindergarten owner and a holiday camp manager following a fire which killed 23 people, mostly children.

They were held for alleged involuntary homicide and building law violations, according to the news agency AFP.

The BBC' s Joanne Shoebridge: "Anyone found accountable will be punished"
The children, mostly aged six, died after fire swept through the dormitory of their summer seaside camp in the west coast town of Hwasong early on Wednesday.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency said those detained included two teachers of the Somang Kindergarten in southern Seoul.

[ image:  ]
It identified the three others as the operator of the Sealand Youth Camp, and two building designers who constructed the premises and obtained its licence.

Police have asked prosecutors to issue formal arrest warrants for the five.

"We suspect the five are criminally responsible for the fire or the consequences of it," an officer said.

Five-hundred children are thought to have been in the three-storey dormitory when the blaze started.

AFP said there were reports that teachers were drinking alcohol in a nearby building at the time and the children had been left unattended.

Call for stricter safety

The kindergarten teachers have been questioned on charges that they failed to take swift action when the fire broke out.

Teachers said huge flames quickly enveloped the building, preventing their own rescue efforts.

Investigators are now examining whether the centre's fire extinguishers were working, or if indeed they were available.

There is also a suggestion that there was no sprinkler system in operation.

President Kim Dae-jung has ordered the government to step up safety measures on public facilities, especially those frequently used by children.

He is expected to pay tribute to the dead on Thursday at a ceremony near their kindergarten in southern Seoul.

Burned beyond recognition

The fire is reported to have started on an upper floor - possibly in the same room where the children were sleeping.

[ image: One of the injured]
One of the injured
Many of the children were killed by the collapse of the building, others died from burns and smoke inhalation.

With all of the victims burned beyond recognition, teachers had to conduct a roll call of survivors before parents could be notified.

The bodies were taken to the National Institute of Scientific Investigation, where senior researcher Lee Wan-tae said identification would take about two months.

He said: "The bodies were badly damaged. It is going to be a difficult process, and we ask for the full cooperation from the families of the deceased."

Reports about the exact death toll still vary. Some say 19 children and four adults died, others put the figures at 21 children and two adults.

Rescue and search operation

The fire was brought under control by firemen after about three hours.

The cause of the blaze is still under investigation. Some reports speculate it may have been sparked by a small fire lit to burn a mosquito repellent coil, others suggest it was caused by an electrical fault.

[ image: Search and rescue operations continued]
Search and rescue operations continued
"There were bursts of sparks in a room on the third floor and then all of a sudden I saw the blaze spreading rapidly," said Chun Kyong-ja, one of the centre staff.

Police said the fire broke out just after midnight but emergency services could not be called for over an hour because the fire destroyed the phone lines.

It took another hour before the fire services arrived at the site, from the nearest fire station at Osan, 43 miles (70 km) away.

Eyewitnesses say fire services took far too long to arrive, but local authorities say they only took 20 minutes.

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