By the time Dae Kwon Yun packed his two children into his sport utility vehicle Sunday, the life he had worked so hard to build had all but collapsed.
The family's once thriving T-shirt and tank top manufacturing business in the downtown Los Angeles garment district was failing, so much so that he went around to fellow merchants asking for loans to pay the rent.
Yun, 54, closed the business about two weeks ago. He and his family once lived in a house in Hancock Park but moved to Monterey Park after experiencing financial problems.
He was arrested in 2004 on suspicion of hitting his wife, Sun Ok Ma, who filed for divorce last week.
He complained to friends about the high cost of having one of his children in a Wilshire Boulevard private school. He remarked about how stressful it was for him to keep up with the wealthy parents at the school.
Authorities said that Yun told his wife on Sunday that he was taking Ashley, 11, and Alexander, 10, to a movie and would return a few hours later. Around 4:40 p.m., he drove his Toyota Sequoia into a deserted alley near his former business, they said.
Los Angeles Police Department detectives believe he splashed fuel around the interior of the vehicle.
Witnesses told police they saw him arguing with Ashley outside the car before forcing her into the back seat. They said they watched in horror as Yun climbed into the front passenger seat and the SUV erupted into flames.
Seconds later, he rolled out onto the ground, his legs engulfed in flames. Firefighters arriving at the scene found that the vehicle had burned to its frame and the children had died. Yun was under guard and listed in critical condition at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center with burns to his hands, face and legs. He is expected to survive, police said.
"We see horrific crimes, but this is a particularly sad one and very hard to understand," said Lt. Don Hartwell.
People in the garment district, Koreatown and beyond were struggling Monday to understand how this could have happened. Shop owners who knew the family wept as they thought back to possible signs of what was to come.
"He must have momentarily snapped," said K.C. Min, who with her husband, Y.K. Min, operates a clothing business two doors down from a retail store run by Ma.
"I can't believe it. How can something like this happen? They're such nice people and they have beautiful children."
Several years ago, the couple seemed to friends to be a model for success. Their business was booming, he drove a Mercedes and the family had attained the dream of many Korean Americans: a home in the Hancock Park area near good schools for their children.
But a few years ago, when state and federal tax officials ordered them to pay $100,000 in back taxes, their marriage worsened, the Mins said.
The couple borrowed money from them and always paid it back, they said.
"Whenever Mr. Yun returned money, he would always bring us food to thank us," said K.C. Min. "He had such good manners."
Yun had earned a law degree in Argentina before immigrating to the United States in the late 1980s, the Mins said. He soon met Ma, who was a real estate agent, and they married in 1993.
Two years ago, he pleaded guilty to beating Ma and was sentenced to two years' probation. He has since been receiving counseling at a Koreatown social services group.
About a month ago, Ma told the Mins that she and her husband had separated and that she had moved to Koreatown.
Ma also expressed concern for her safety, they said.
"I told her to be careful, not to provoke him," Y.K. Min said.
Yun was also showing strain in recent months, friends and fellow merchants said. Ma told police that Yun may have been living in his car and been distraught over a gambling debt he could not repay.
Jasmine Jung, a cafe owner in the same building where Yun had his business, said he worked long hours. Unlike many garment business owners, he not only managed his business but also did grunt work, such as ironing and folding, himself, she said.
His children sometimes hung out at the business with him.
But privately, Yun complained about financial difficulties and the cost of the private school for his daughter, Jung said. "He often talked about the pressure and the stress of having a good, high-end lifestyle," she said. "He said life was too much to handle."
The family stresses showed in November at a parent-teacher meeting for Alexander at 3rd Street Elementary School, where the teacher became so "very uncomfortable" with Yun because of his anger that Principal Suzie Oh advised that she have another staff member present at future meetings.
Alexander, a fourth-grader, did very well academically, "but socially and emotionally, he was very unhappy," Oh said.
Last week, the boy told his student teacher that he was "very unhappy," Oh added. "It is a shocking, tragic and horrendous incident."
At St. James Episcopal School, where Ashley was a student, teachers discussed how to tell her classmates.
"I can hardly deal with it myself," said Stephen Bowers, St. James' head of school. "Our community is very strong. We're working very hard to support each other during a really difficult period."
Because of Yun's injuries, he has been unable to speak to detectives about the incident.
Detectives said they expected to seek homicide charges as soon as Yun's condition improves.
People who knew him were still struggling to understand.
"If he wanted to die," said Steve Kim, Yun's former property manager, "why did he have to take the children?"
Times staff writer Hemmy So contributed to this report.