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  Explorer: Make Sunday Night an Adventure Sundays at 8P ET/PT
POSTED September 13, 2005

Explorer: Collapse

Bill Swift
Associate Producer

Taking buildings for granted…

The idea that a building’s walls will stand up seems as safe a bet as gravity’s pull or the sun’s rising. Most of us don’t worry much about whether our apartments, offices, supermarkets, or schools are going to collapse on us as we go about our daily routines. But should we? National Geographic Channel’s Explorer takes a look at buildings around the world that despite having appeared structurally sound, some for years on end, came crashing down in a moment’s notice. We dig deep into the histories of these buildings to discover why.

Collapses around the world…

The Sampoong Department store in Seoul, South Korea was one of the swankiest stores in town. It had everything under one roof, from a gourmet grocery to high-end clothing and cosmetic boutiques. Many local Koreans, and in particular the city’s movers and shakers, would drop by for their evening meals and errands.
Image: Remains of the Sampoong Department Store
Remains of the Sampoong Department Store.

That is, until the evening of June 29th, 1995, when in less than 20 seconds, the mall came crashing down with an estimated 1,500 unsuspecting shoppers and employees inside. Not just a single floor or area, but five stories of the North wing pancaking into the four basements, killing more than 500 people and injuring over 900. There was no sign of a natural disaster, terrorist act, or a wrecking ball in sight. Yet one minute the department store was bustling with diners and shoppers and the next, all five floors were a heap of rubble. It is considered the worst structural collapse of a building in modern history.

We pulled out our magnifying glass to examine this disaster and two other collapses –the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City Missouri—considered the deadliest structural failure of a building in the United States—and the recent Charles de Gaulle Airport collapse Terminal 2E in Paris, France.

Off to Seoul…

Despite its shocking death toll, the details of the Sampoong disaster are nearly undocumented in the US media. So to find out what happened – what made this seemingly sound building collapse without a moment’s notice—we decided to pay our own visit to where the disaster occurred.

We arrived in Seoul, South Korea in the spring of 2005. The city is home to over 10 million Koreans, about one fifth of the country’s population. A trip from one end of the city to the other can take up to two hours and parts of the journey can be made along a contiguous string of passages and buildings.

Seoul’s breathtaking skyline is dotted with magnificent skyscrapers and towers. Dubbed as one of the “Tiger economies” of Asia in the 1980s, South Korea saw foreign investments pouring in as the country surged economically, even hosting the Summer Olympic Games in 1988. This global attraction galvanized a building boom, producing the cosmopolitan Seoul we know today –with its sprawling street mazes, bridges, and skyscrapers. The evening and morning traffic in today’s Seoul could rival that of Los Angeles or New York City.

Luckily, to navigate this urban infrastructure, we had the help of our van driver Mr. Lee—friend to many foreign journalists and celebrity to many locals. The cars fly left and right as he forges his way through gridlock, aided by a flashing light and bullhorn, which he uses to declare a “media emergency” when escorting journalists on deadline. Many of the local police officers even seem sympathetic to his mission and let him through. With the help of Mr. Lee, we wove between the towering structures of Seoul relatively unscathed.

Downplaying the adversity—the tragedy and trauma…

For the most part, the Koreans we spoke with were very kind, letting us into their lives to record their stories. At the same time, however, many of the Sampoong survivors struggled to speak frankly about their experiences—the destruction and their personal loss. Perhaps reflecting on the trauma is too overwhelming. Or they’re reluctant to add their stories to a list of other tragedies in Korea from the last decade – a subway gas explosion and fire (set by a mental patient and killing over 120) in the southern city of Taegu in 2003 and the Songsu cantilever bridge collapse that caused dozens of casualties in 1994, just before the Sampoong disaster.

We met with a number of the collapse survivors and heard some amazing stories. Unfortunately, we couldn’t include them all in the Explorer episode. One woman left a particular impression with me – Mrs. Ha. She was a thriving entrepreneur, running two very successful snack shops in the Sampoong building. She recalled the day’s events with incredible repose. She was dropping a package off in the basement garage when a security guard told her the building was going to collapse. He wasn’t going to let her back in, but Ms. Ha insisted on re-entering the building to tell her employees to evacuate. With an ironic twist of fate, her employees narrowly escaped, but Ms. Ha was caught in the basement during the collapse and had to find her way out through one of the emergency stairwells.

For our interview, Ms. Ha was confident and composed, but it wasn’t until our cameras were turned off that she began to weep. The collapse had devastated her way of life. The settlement she received following the disaster didn’t come close to being enough to recoup the life, and lifestyle, she had before.
Photo: An actress portrays Ms. Seung-Hyeon Park buried in the collapse
An actress portrays Ms. Seung-Hyeon Park, an employee at the Sampoong Department Store who was buried in the rubble for 17 days without food or water before she was found.

It’s very difficult working on a story like this, particularly in a foreign culture. You struggle to tread the line of being a good journalist and asking the difficult questions, while respecting the cultural sensibilities of privacy and the intimacy of tragedy and trauma.

How to tell the story…

We wanted our viewers to get a sense of what things were really like on the day of the collapse, to convey the sense of tragedy and trauma the survivors experienced, through a re-creation of the scene. Obviously, there weren’t any cameras filming on the day of the collapse or recording underneath the debris as survivor Seung-Hyeon Park awaited rescue. A Hollywood backlot with an earthquake set would have been helpful to shoot these scenes. Instead, we had to create a realistic set for the re-creation and do it with the limited resources we’ve got here at National Geographic. It took real creativity and a lot of teamwork. Luckily among our staff, we had someone whose father’s a Hollywood set designer and happened to be coming to town. We won't give away his secrets, but with a crew of carpenters, painters, interns, staff members and friends all joined together, we managed to re-create a Korean disaster here in Washington.

Seoul post-Sampoong?

So what happened in Seoul after the Sampoong disaster? The department store owners and the affiliated government officials were indicted. There was indeed a call for tighter regulations and oversight of the building codes and those who enforce them. It’s not certain, however, if the new policies are working. Recent newspaper articles, memorializing the 10th anniversary of the disaster, decry the lack of enforcement of the legal codes instituted since then.


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Professor teaching a new generation…

But there are individuals in the industry looking to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself. Central to our exploration was Professor Lan Chung, one of the lead investigators of the Sampoong collapse and currently the Dean of the School of Architecture at Dankook University.

We sat in on one of Professor Chung’s very well-attended lectures on the Sampoong disaster. Professor Chung is committed to educating future architects and engineers about past mistakes and future pitfalls to avoid. The packed lecture hall seemed to prove students are eager not to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.

And for the future of architecture?

As modern materials and engineering allow architects and designers to build bigger, better and more aesthetically-pleasing structures, are we pushing the limits of technology too far?

There’s no clear cut answer. According to Dr. Roger McCarthy, Chairman Emeritus of the California based engineering consultancy firm, Exponent, Inc., modern architects want to create awe-inspiring building designs that are seemingly held up by magic. Dr. McCarthy warns those in this quest: “Anytime you take a design closer and closer to the limit of the material, any time you shrink a factor of safety… with each foot closer to the edge of the cliff, place each foot down very carefully.”

Leaving Seoul…Things we take for granted…

We left the Sampoong rubble behind, equipped with inspiring survival stories and lessons from engineers and architects alike. Returning to the Incheon International Airport to catch our flight home, I marveled at the airport’s architecture. Just five years old, the new international airport is awe-inspiring – replete with glass ceilings, towering arches, and expansive LCD monitors lining the moving walkways. Coincidentally, I was reminded, as I traveled the passageways through the terminal, that this building was another masterpiece of Architect Paul Andreu – the same architect who designed Terminal 2E of the Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris. The same terminal which came crashing down unexpectedly in 2004…

Should I have been afraid? Concerned for my safety? Possibly, but oddly enough, I wasn’t. I was hardly bothered at all. While architectural disasters that occur once in a blue moon are traumatic, they are very rare. Even after having completed all the research for this program, I want to trust the engineering feats of the architects embodied in the structures that surround us. Particularly the ones for public use. I’m happy to see engineers and architects take on new challenges, creating more beautiful buildings for us to enjoy. I choose to trust the structural integrity of most architecture, but I temper that with an awareness of my surroundings, and if a building is crying out, making noises, showing signs of sagging, cracking and leaking, I’ll get out quickly.

National Geographic Channel does not edit or research blog postings or comments. However, offensive language and entries made in error will be deleted.

hurricane katrina [ posted by torri and brittany at September 20, 2005 12:22 PM ]

we r sorry and praying 4 everybody in this tradgic accident or hurricane.we will help u survive and we people from middlesboro middle school are saving money.we people in MIDDLESBORO KENTUCKY R HELPING U SURVIVE

The Hyatt Regency Tragedy [ posted by Scott Oliverson at September 24, 2005 08:05 PM ]

The worst structural engineering disaster of all time was at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri when on the fateful summer night of July 17, 1981 at 7:05pm during the famous TeaDance Marathon over 1500 visitors and hotel guests were crowded into the 4-story glass atrium lobby when suddenly without warning there came a loud crack or screeching-like metallic pop And then in the blink of an eye, two overcrowded walkway skybridges spanning the lobby collapsed and came crashing down onto the terrified victims below!

112 or 114 people died in the collapse, 100 injured survivors escaped alive. I have seen these reenactment dramatizations from several reality TV shows such as...

What Happened - NBC Network Moments of Disaster - Discovery Channel Minute by Minute - A&E Network When Buildings Collapse - Discovery Channel

Now, after the Hyatt was rebuilt and redesigned after that structural failure and reopened in 1982 (1 year after the collapse) walls and roofs were re-strenghened and fireproofed, the skywalks were gone, in their place was a single balcony supported by massive column pillar supports embeded in bedrock.

There have been many other building failures in the USA and around the world and survivors and rescuers, investigators and others learn from these disasters and try to prevent them from happening again!!!

Collapse of buildings....need more awareness and more care in safety [ posted by Lyn Henri at September 25, 2005 09:59 PM ]

I think it's deplorable that designers of beautiful buildings don't consider the safety of the people who will be inside those buildings and squabble senselessly, hence the collapses of buildings.

These buildings need to be designed with people's safety in mind, not greedy people who regard carelessness over safety.

I think I'll think twice before I marvel over state of the design buildings, since most of them won't be safely built.

sampoong dept store collapse [ posted by niki radunich at September 26, 2005 05:02 PM ]

How much time did all parties involved get in prison, also were there any fines implemented? Were the victims allowed to sue the owners and others involved? It was a great piece although very sad indeed.

Explorer - Collapse [ posted by Dave Lehman at September 27, 2005 12:18 AM ]

This program was so well done! I am a student at the University of Utah studying Civil Engineering and this program touched on so many levels - the engineering aspect, the political, financial, and even the ethical aspects that Engineers must face daily. I want to know how I can get a copy of this program so that it can be added to our departments library and curriculum. If any one knows a way I could get my hands on this program, please let me know as it would be so valuable as a learning tool for young engineers. With the lessons learned in this program, hopefully many future catastrophies will be avoided.

Global Warming [ posted by Dave Hopkins at September 28, 2005 01:42 AM ]

This issue has gotten so out of hand that nobody knows what it is anymore. When something goes wrong, it is blamed on Global Warming. It's like saying, "The devil made me do it". It has become a cliche that means nothing and will soon go the way of "Ban the Bomb", "The Whole World's Watching". Give it up, there's no such thing. Are we to just take it on faith.....wait a minute, that's not the Scientific Method! You mean some things just can't be explained and science doesn't have all the answers. No science doesn't have all the answers and a computer model doesn't always explain what is really happening in real time.

you take too much for granted [ posted by cedric quackenbush at September 28, 2005 04:25 PM ]

In discussing so called disasters - especially those where political agendas and or large insurance agencies are concerned - it is important not to rule out sabotage or even "planned obselescence"; design flaws. More than one famous "disaster" has been traced to "foul play"; I believe two of these so called disasters will be the "very strange" twin hurricanes which destroyed new orleans and the world's largest scam - the demolition of the twin towers in NYC. History has a long ear and the law even a longer arm. Even today the prime player in WWII documentaries is always mysteriously absent - Standard Oil; where did Japan and Germany get the petroleum products to wage global war and where did the bankrupt Weimar Republic get the capital for such great industrial developments even in spite of War Reperations and Treaty of Versailles Mandates not to manufacture armaments plus compromising Western Peace Making Leaders!

If these questions are too large for the geographic; what is thermite and who in the U.S. is licensed to use it and does NORAD have weather modification capabilities; like the so-called "scalar interferometer.

sorry [ posted by elizabeth at September 28, 2005 09:22 PM ]

that accisdent looked so bad and i am really sorry for that

earthquakes [ posted by morgan at September 29, 2005 03:54 PM ]

i think its terrible that all over the world there is another earthquake. i think we should try and find how we can stop them. then we wouldnt always have this probalem. that is a sulution to part of our problems.

Sampoong [ posted by Rafael Duran Alvarado at October 14, 2005 03:48 PM ]

Soy Ingeniero Estructural de una empresa Constructora en Peru, quisiera mostrar el video del Colapso del Edificio a companeros de trabajo del area de Arquitectura. Como puedo hacer para tener una copia del Video del Colapso del edificio de Sampoong en Korea en Digital?

Sampoong [ posted by Rafael Duran Alvarado at October 14, 2005 04:12 PM ]

Soy Ingeniero Estructural de una empresa Constructora en Peru, quisiera mostrar el video del Colapso del Edificio a companeros de trabajo del area de Arquitectura. Como puedo hacer para tener una copia del Video del Colapso del edificio de Sampoong en Korea en Digital?

The Hyatt Regency Disaster [ posted by Meredith at October 28, 2005 04:09 PM ]

It is unfortunate that the tragedy does not just end with 114 lives taken...A friend of mine lost both of his parents in this tragedy when he was just a child. The shock and pain not only hurts the injured and deceased, but their families become victims as well.

sad [ posted by Brian at October 31, 2005 09:03 PM ]

Collapse [ posted by Mormana at November 02, 2005 10:56 PM ]

Excellent Article thank you very much hope to hear a lot more from national geographic explorer channel...

By Mormana.

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