The Sampoong Department Store Disaster of 1995

Sampoong was a bustling department store in the heart of Seoul, South Korea.

The Sampoong Department Store Disaster of 1995

On 29th June 1995, the South wing of a busy five-floor shopping mall located in the Seocho-gu district of Seoul, South Korea, collapsed, killing 502 people and causing injuries to 937 others. For a long time the disaster remained on record as the deadliest modern building collapse, resulting from engineering oversights and serious human error.

A Time of Quick Development

Following the crippling Korean War of the early 1950s, South Korea had achieved remarkable growth to become impressively rich with infrastructural and technological advancements. This momentum of rapid expansion, coupled with the famed Summer Olympics held in Seoul in 1988, might have had a share in influencing the bad decisions and shortcuts that were responsible for the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store. The pressure from many large projects that were going on simultaneously, together with other stimulants such as greed for fast money, are believed to have led to compromises of several building codes both by the companies and authorities.

Tragedy Strikes

The construction of Sampoong department began in 1987, amid the development boom and competing interests from infrastructure for the 1988 Olympics. Perhaps determined to reap from a possible post-Olympic economic boom, the owners adapted building plans that were originally for a four-floor residential apartment, to construct the large department store with five floors. The amended blue prints also eliminated a number of support columns in order to incorporate escalators. The contractor originally hired for the project refused to go by these changes and a company owned by the Chairman of the building, Lee Joon, was contracted to carry out the works in its place. The structure was completed two years later in 1989, and opened to the public with an estimated 40,000 people visiting the mall daily. Engineers also noted that the building was a flat-slab structure, meaning it lacked both appropriate reinforcement and adequate column placements in an attempt to maximize on floorspace. The fifth floor, which was an ill-advised addition to the structure, exerted stress on the already overburdened columns, with a 45-tonne air conditioning unit installed on the roof. When telling cracks began to appear on the fifth floor, almost three months before the collapse, the management all but ignored the warning and only moved merchandise that was stored in the fifth floor to the basement to relieve it of some weight. However, even hours to the collapse when the cracks became alarming, the management failed to evacuate the building for fear of losing the day’s revenue, choosing instead to close off the fifth floor and switch of the air conditioning. This action did not save the imminent collapse and in the late afternoon of 29th June 1995, the entire South wing of the building crumbled to the ground.

Lessons from the Sampoong Department Store tragedy

The collapse of the Sampoong Department Store collapse would have been avoided if greed and corruption had not played out so carelessly. The refusal by the company originally contracted to construct the project on the basis of irregularly amended blueprint designs was a clear indication that the building, designed to house so many visitors per day, was at risk and the construction amendments should not have been allowed to proceed. The refusal to act against clear warnings also demonstrated bad decisions driven by selfish greed, which endangered the lives of many. Authorities should also have been more vigilant to ensure strict compliance and adherence of standards of the building code, especially in the wake of rapid development, characterized by increased construction of buildings and other infrastructure.


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