South Korea's deadliest fire in 9 years: Maze-like interior made it difficult for people to escape

SEOUL - At least 29 people were killed and 26 injured on Thursday (Dec 21) in a major blaze at a fitness centre building in the South Korean city of Jecheon, officials said, in one of the country's deadliest fire disasters.

The fire broke out around 4pm local time (5pm Singapore) and quickly engulfed the entire eight-storey building, leaving many trapped inside.

Local media said the maze-like interior of the facility made it more difficult for people to exit the building.

The blaze - believed to have started in a vehicle parked on the ground floor -was put out in an hour and 50 minutes, the fire agency said.

One eye-witness told Chosun Ilbo he heard a loud bang before seeing the car bursting into flames. The fire spread quickly and soon engulfed the entire building, TV footage has shown.

The second and third floors of the building house saunas and public baths, while fitness facilities are located from the fourth to seventh floors. The eighth floor houses a cafeteria. Twenty of the fatalities were found on the second floor.

"The fire produced so much toxic smoke so quickly, leaving many people unable to evacuate," an agency spokesman said. Many victims appeared to have been unaware of the fire raging outside the bathhouse until it became impossible to flee, he added. The smoke and toxic fumes also hampered rescue efforts.

"The building was filled with toxic smoke. The second floor was surrounded with plate glass and it looked impossible for people to escape," an eye-witness said.

Another told Chosun Ilbo: "People trapped inside were screaming for help. I couldn't bear to watch."

The death toll may rise further as firefighters continue to search the building, the spokesman said. Television footage showed the building consumed by orange flames and issuing dark plumes of smoke, as several people stood waiting to be rescued from an outdoor terrace.

Some were seen jumping from the building onto air mattresses laid out on the ground as dozens of fire trucks and more than 100 firefighters rushed to the scene.

Jecheon is in central South Korea, about 120km south-east of the capital Seoul. The disaster forced organisers of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to cancel a planned torch relay event at the city on Friday, Yonhap news agency said, citing the organisers.

"We decided to cancel the event to mourn the victims," an unnamed official at the organising committee was quoted as saying.

Thursday's fire is South Korea's worst since 2008 when a blaze at a warehouse in the city of Icheon killed 40 workers.

President Moon Jae In expressed regret over the accident and urged officials to make "utmost efforts" for search-and-rescue operations, his office said.

The worst fire ever to hit modern South Korea was an arson attack on a subway station in the south-eastern city of Daegu that left 192 people dead and nearly 150 injured in 2003.