Investigators Search Battery Factory Ruins After Fire Killed 23

More than 100 people were working at the factory when the fire tore through it.

A man wearing a bandage on his right hand and a cast on left leg looks at the site of a burnt battery manufacturing factory in Hwaseong, South Korea, Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
A man wearing a bandage on his right hand and a cast on left leg looks at the site of a burnt battery manufacturing factory in Hwaseong, South Korea, Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Forensic and other experts combed through the charred ruins of a factory building near South Korea's capital to find the cause of a devastating fire that killed 23 people, mostly Chinese migrant workers, in one of the country's deadliest blazes in years.

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. An additional body was recovered on Tuesday. Eighteen victims were Chinese, two were South Korean and one was Laotian. The nationalities of the other two dead were 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 laborers 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, and officials say the body discovered Tuesday likely belongs to that person. Eight were injured, two of them in serious condition.

In a Cabinet Council meeting Tuesday, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, the country's No. 2 official, instructed officials to provide support to bereaved families over funerals and compensation issues. He also asked for safety inspections on industrial sites. During a visit to the site Monday, President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered officials to put in place measures to effectively deal with battery-related fires.

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 briefing.

A separate team of 40 forensic, fire, police and other officials examined the site later Tuesday to investigate what exactly caused the blaze. Labor 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.

In a televised conference near the fire site Tuesday, Aricell chief Park Soon-kwan offered a public apology over the blaze. After deeply bowing with other company officials, Park said he would offer all available assistance to bereaved families and faithfully undergo government investigations over the blaze.

Most of the dead workers were daily laborers 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 was 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.

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