South Korean Rescuers Search Burned Factory After A Blaze Killed 22, Mostly Chinese Migrants

Many Chinese people, including ethnic Koreans, have migrated to South Korea to find jobs since China and South Korea established diplomatic ties in 1992.

South Korea factory blaze | Photo: AP

Rescue workers were combing through the charred ruins of a factory building near South Korea's capital to find any more fire victims Tuesday, a day after a devastating blaze likely triggered by exploding lithium batteries killed 22 people, mostly Chinese migrant workers.

More than 100 people were working at the factory in Hwaseong city, just south of Seoul, when the fire tore through it Monday morning. Security cameras showed smoke engulfing the second-floor worksite of the factory, soon after sparks were detected from a site where lithium batteries were stored, fire officials said.

One victim was pronounced dead at a hospital, and fire workers retrieved 21 bodies from the factory one by one later Monday. Eighteen victims were Chinese, two were South Korean and one was Laotian. The nationality of one of the dead was being verified.

Many Chinese people, including ethnic Koreans, have migrated to South Korea to find jobs since China and South Korea established diplomatic ties in 1992.

Like other migrant labourers from Southeast Asian countries, they often work in factories, construction sites and restaurants, engaging in the so-called “difficult, dangerous and dirty” jobs that are shunned by more affluent South Koreans.

Chinese Ambassador Xing Haiming visited the factory site on Monday night and reportedly expressed condolences to the victims. Police were extracting DNA samples from the dead bodies and their potential relatives to confirm their relations, according to fire officials.

One factory worker remains out of contact but his mobile phone signal was detected at the building on Monday afternoon. Eight were injured, two of them in serious condition.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol also visited the factory site Monday. He expressed condolences to the dead people and ordered officials to put in place measures to effectively deal with battery-related fires, according to Yoon's office.

On Tuesday, more than 50 fire officers, aided by two rescue dogs and other equipment, were mobilized to continue searching the burned factory, local fire official Kim Jin-young told a televised briefing. He said partial remains had been discovered but it wasn't immediately known if they belonged to the missing person.

Kim said a separate team of fire, police and other experts were also set to examine the site later Tuesday to investigate what exactly caused the blaze. Labour officials said the government will separately investigate whether any safety issues were involved in the fire. The factory is owned by a battery manufacturer, Aricell.

Most of the dead workers were daily labourers so they were not likely familiar with the building's internal structure, senior fire officer Jo Seon-ho told reporters Monday.

He said the video of the fire site showed they rushed to an area where there was no exit after failing to put out the blaze with fire extinguishers. He said the victims likely inhaled toxic smoke.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous in consumer goods from laptops to cellphones. They can overheat if damaged, defective or packaged improperly, leading to fires and explosions and making them a hazard for shipment aboard aircraft.

Monday's blaze is one of the deadliest in South Korea in recent years.

In 2020, a fire at a warehouse being built in Icheon City, south of Seoul, killed 38 construction workers. In 2018, 46 people died after a fire ripped through a small hospital with no sprinkler systems in the southern city of Miryang.

In 2008, 40 workers, 12 of them ethnic Koreans with Chinese nationality, died after a fire and accompanying explosions tore through a refrigerated warehouse in Icheon city.

South Korea has struggled for decades to improve safety standards and change widespread attitudes that regard safety as subservient to economic progress and convenience.