Sampoong Department Store collapse

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The Rubble of the Sampoong Department Store
The Rubble of the Sampoong Department Store

The Sampoong Department Store (삼풍 백화점) collapse is a structural failure that occurred on June 29, 1995 in the Seocho-gu district of Seoul, South Korea. The collapse is the largest peacetime disaster in South Korean history – 501 people were killed and 937 injured.

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Building overview

The Sampoong Group commenced construction of the Sampoong Department Store in 1987 over a tract of land previously used as a landfill. Originally designed as an office building with four floors, Lee Joon, the future chairman of the building, redesigned the building as an upmarket department store later on during its construction. This involved cutting away a number of support columns in order to permit the installation of escalators. When the initial contractors refused to carry out these changes, Joon fired them and hired his own building company to construct the building.

The building was completed in late 1989, and the Sampoong Department Store opened to the public on July 7, 1990, attracting an estimated 40,000 people per day during the building's five years in service. The store consisted of a north wing and south wing, connected by an atrium.

Fifth floor and air conditioning unit

Later on, a fifth floor was added to the building, which became a traditional Korean restaurant. As Koreans customarily sit on the floor to eat, the restaurant's floor had a heated concrete base which added a large extra load. In addition, the building's air conditioning unit was now installed on the roof, imposing a load on it of four times the design limit. To make matters worse, amid complaints about noise from local residents, the air conditioning unit was moved across the roof from the back of the store to the front. Rather than using a crane, the air conditioning unit was simply pushed across the roof, heavily damaging the roof structure.

Collapse

In April 1995, cracks began to appear in the ceiling of the fifth floor. During this period, the only response carried out by Joon and his management involved moving merchandise and stores from the top floor to the basement.

On the morning of June 29, the number of cracks in the area increased dramatically, prompting managers to close the top floor and shut the air conditioning off. Civil engineering experts were also invited to inspect the structure, with a cursory check revealing that the building was at risk of collapse. However, the store management failed to shut the building down or issue formal evacuation orders, as the number of customers in the building was unusually high, and the store was not intending to lose potential revenue for that day.

At about 5 P.M., the fourth floor ceiling began to sink, resulting in store workers blocking customer access to the fourth floor. However, when the building started to produce cracking sounds at about 5:50 P.M., workers began to sound alarm bells and evacuate customers. Around 6:05 P.M., the roof gave way, and the air conditioning unit crashed through into the already-overloaded fifth floor. The main columns, weakened to allow the insertion of the escalators, then collapsed in turn, and the whole building pancaked into the basement.

501 people were killed in the collapse – the last survivor, 19-year-old Park Sung Hyon (박승현; 朴胜賢), was found 16 days later. The disaster also resulted in about 270 billion (approximately US$216 million) worth of property damage.

Investigation and trial

It was initially thought that the building's poorly laid foundation and the fact that it was built on unstable ground led to the failure. Investigation of the rubble revealed that the building was constructed with a substandard concrete mix (of cement and sea water) and poorly reinforced concrete on the ceilings and walls. However, the cause of the collapse was traced to structural defects due to the design changes carried out by Joon and his building company – the inferior concrete used would not have been enough on its own to cause the collapse.

Joon was charged for negligence and received a ten and a half year jail sentence. His son, Lee Han-Sang, the store's president, faced seven years for the same charge [1]. City officials dispatched to oversee the construction of the building were also found to have been bribed into concealing the illegal changes and poor construction of the building. As a result, the participating officials, including a former chief administrator of the Seocho-gu district, were also jailed for their part. Other parties sentenced included a number of Sampoong Department Store executives, and the building company responsible for completing the building.

The disaster led to skepticism and fears regarding safety standards on other engineering projects undertaken as South Korea experienced an economic boom during the 1980s and 1990s, and resulted in a review of South Korean safety regulations; the incident also revealed the level of corruption among city officials, who were willing to accept payoffs with little regard to public safety.

The Discovery Channel television program Disaster Detectives featured the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store and the subsequent investigation in one of its episodes.

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