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500 died in shopping centre collapse because boss chose money over safety

The collapsed Sampoong Department Store

Massive construction projects are very complicated - and very expensive.

It is vital the finished building is safe for the people who use it.

Corner-cutting can often lead to disaster, and attempts to save money or maximize profit over safety often lead to huge fines and even prison for those involved.

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One horrific incident happened in South Korea in the 1990s, which led to prison sentences for board members who chose to make money over introducing safety measures.

South Korea had seen a boom in construction in the run-up to the Seoul Olympics in 1988, with several massive contracts handed out for enormous building projects.

One project was the Sampoong Department Store.

The project started life as an apartment block in 1987 but was taken over by the Sampoong Group.

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One project was the Sampoong Department Store.

The project started life as an apartment block in 1987 but was taken over by the Sampoong Group.

The head of its construction division, Lee Joon, decided it should become a shopping mall and ordered changes to concrete support columns.

This involved cutting away several support columns to put in escalators and adding a fifth floor, which would've been an ice rink but ended up being a food court.

The building company in charge withdrew due to safety concerns.

Lee Joon then brought in his own company to finish the work to create what became the Sampoong Department Store, which opened in 1990.

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To maximize the floor space in the store - to make more money - Lee Joon ordered the size of the floor columns to be reduced to 60cm (24ins) thick.

The minimum for the building to stand safely was 80cm (31ins).

The columns were too far apart, meaning each one was taking more weight than it should.

Warning signs

Warning signs started to appear in April 1995 when cracks began to show in the ceiling of the fifth floor.

Lee Joon's response was to move merchandise and stores from the top floor to the basement.

On June 29 of the same year, more cracks appeared, which led to parts of the top floor being shut off.

However, managers failed to close the building or issue evacuation orders.

The store was exceptionally busy at the time, and management decided they did not want to lose a day's revenue.

Inspectors were quickly able to tell the building was at risk of collapse.

Then, five hours before the collapse, a series of loud bangs were heard from the top floors as vibrations from air conditioning units caused the cracks to widen.

The units were subsequently turned off, but the cracks had increased considerably.

Disaster

It became clear the building would collapse, and the board held an emergency meeting.

Despite the looming disaster, Lee Hoon still refused to evacuate the building due to his fears of losing cash.

The executives made sure they were safe before the collapse.

It was later revealed Jee Joon didn't even tell his daughter-in-law, who worked in the building.

She ended up being trapped in the rubble and was rescued days later.

At around 5pm, the ceiling on the fifth floor began to sink.

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The floor was finally closed off as a result.

Just 57 minutes before the disaster, the store was still full of people, with Lee Joon still refusing to carry out repairs.

At 5.52pm, several cracking sounds were heard, and finally, the decision was made to evacuate the building.

But the roof gave way, which led to the air conditioning units crashing through the fifth floor.

They smashed through the lower floors.

The columns Lee Joon had weakened to allow the escalators to be put in also collapsed.

In just 20 seconds, the south wing collapsed.

520 dead

The collapse led to the deaths of 520 people, and 1,500 were left trapped.

It resulted in property damage of around $216 million at the time, nearly $500 million in 2023.

Rescue crews arrived within minutes, but the operation was called off soon after due to safety concerns over the remaining structure.

Mass protests from family and friends of those who were missing led to it being resumed.

The operation lasted over a week, but one survivor was pulled out relatively unscathed 17 days after the collapse.

Investigation

The rescue operation at The collapsed Sampoong Department Store
The rescue operation at The collapsed Sampoong Department Store in 1995 (Wiki Commons)

The investigation initially believed the building's badly laid foundations on the unstable ground had led to the collapse.

It was revealed the ceilings and walls were made of a substandard mix of cement and seawater and that poorly-reinforced concrete was used.

It also revealed the building was constructed with the incorrect application of a technique called called "flat slab construction"

It was finally found the building's three rooftop air conditioners had been moved because of noise complaints from its neighbors.

Cracks had appeared during the move, but instead of using a crane to move them, they were put on rollers, which increased the pressure on the roof.

Every time the air conditioners were turned on, it increased the damage to the roof.

Over the course of two years, it got worse and worse, leading to the disaster.

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Prison

During the trial, Lee Joon continued to cause controversy by saying the collapse harmed customers and inflicted significant financial damage to his company.

In December 1995, he was found guilty of criminal negligence and received a prison sentence of 10-and-a-half years.

He died a month after his release from prison, aged 81.

His son and the store's CEO, Lee Han-sang, was jailed for seven years for accidental homicide and corruption.

He was released in 2002 and spent time working as an evangelist in Mongolia.

City officials Lee Chung-Woo, and Hwang Chol-Min were also jailed for three years and 10 years for accepting bribes from Lee Joon.

Other officials, store executives, and staff from the company who built the shopping center were also jailed.

The former shopping center is now luxury apartments, which opened in 2004.

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