Sampoong Department Store Collapse

By the mid-1990s, Sampoong had become one of the most fashionable and expensive department stores in the city.

The Korean business and political elite (or rather, its female part) frequently shopped there.

Indeed, it was the popularity of Sampoong’s eateries that indirectly caused the disaster. According to an established tradition, no Korean department store is complete without an ``eating gallery.’’ The Sampoong eating gallery enjoyed remarkable success, so the owners decided to improve it. They arranged an artificial pond with a life-size watermill and installed a lot of heavy air-refrigeration equipment. The result was a huge weight overload that made the entire construction unstable. Renovations to the underground parking lot _ conducted without any approval _ further increased this instability, so by 1995 the fashionable Sampoong Emporium was a disaster waiting to happen.

One of two buildings of Sampoong Department Store located at 1675-3, Seocho-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul (the slab on the fifth floor of the northern building, 5-storied on the ground and 4-storied underground) collapsed, which was continued to collapse of the basement soon. This was a big disaster resulting in 501 deaths, 937 injured and 6 missing.

In April 1995, cracks began to appear in the ceiling of the south wing's fifth floor. During this period, the only response carried out by Lee 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. 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. However, the executives themselves had left the premises as a precaution.

Civil engineering experts were also invited to inspect the structure, with a cursory check revealing that the building was at risk of collapse; the National Geographic documentary series Seconds From Disaster indicates that the facility's manager was examining the slab in one of the restaurants on the fifth floor, eight hours before the collapse, when, unknowingly, vibration from air conditioning was radiating through the cracks in the concrete columns and the floor opened up.

Five hours before the collapse, the first of several loud bangs was emitted from the top floors, as the vibration in the air conditioning caused the cracks in the slabs to widen further. Amid customer reports of vibration, the air conditioning was turned off, but the cracks in the floors had already widened to 10 cm.

At about 5:00 p.m. Korea Standard Time (UTC+9:00), the fourth floor ceiling began to sink, resulting in store workers blocking customer access to the fourth floor. According to Seconds From Disaster, the store was packed with shoppers 52 minutes before the collapse, but the owner did not close the store or carry out repairs at that time. When the building started to produce cracking sounds at about 5:50 p.m., workers began to sound alarms and evacuate the building, but by then it was too late.

Around 5:57 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, collapsed in turn, and the building's south wing pancaked into the basement. Within 20 seconds, all of the building's columns in the south wing gave way, trapping more than 1,500 people and killing 502.

The disaster resulted in about ₩270 billion (approximately US$216 million) worth of property damage.