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At least 29 die, dozens injured in South Korean building fire

At least 29 die, dozens injured in South Korean building fire
Firefighters battle the blaze that engulfed a fitness complex in Jecheon, South Korea, on Dec. 21, 2017, killing more than two dozen people. (Yonhap)

At least 29 people were killed and dozens more injured during a massive fire Thursday at a multistory fitness complex in a central South Korean city, authorities said.

The fire engulfed the eight-story, triangle-shaped building, filling it with deadly smoke and trapping dozens inside. Flames could be seen bursting through the roof as thick smoke billowed out windows and dozens of firefighters sought to contain the blaze.

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The incident occurred in Jecheon, about 100 miles southeast of Seoul, and started about 3:50 p.m. Thursday in the building's parking lot. At least 15 of the dead had been trapped in a second-floor sauna, fire officials in North Chungcheong province told reporters.

Some survivors were plucked from the roof of the 45,000-square-foot concrete structure, located in a residential area. The facility, Noble Fitness and Spa, also housed a workout center, indoor golf facility and restaurants.

Helicopters hovered over the damaged structure throughout the afternoon as thick smoke filled the air. Witnesses reported hearing explosions in the parking structure and seeing at least one person jump from the building to escape, according to an image posted to social media.

The fire is perhaps the largest mass-casualty event in South Korea since the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014. More than 300 people, many of them high school students, were killed when the vessel capsized en route from Incheon to Jeju Island. The government's response to the incident and its handling of the investigation caused widespread anger across the country.

The scale of Thursday's fire prompted quick attention at the highest levels of government, with Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon visiting the Ministry of the Interior and Safety to monitor the firefighting effort.

President Moon Jae-in issued a statement urging fire officials to contain the blaze but to do so safely. He also expressed hope that authorities could identify the dead quickly to give comfort to grieving family members.

"The president is very sorry about the loss of multiple lives in the large fire," said Yoon Young-chan, the presidential press secretary.

Fire deaths are less common in South Korea, where multistory buildings are generally equipped with sprinklers and rescue cords for residents, than they are in the United States. The toll from the Jecheon blaze would represent about 10% of the nation's annual fire deaths in recent years.

About 280 people were killed in fires last year, according to data provided by the Korean Statistical Information Service. South Korea's population is just over 51 million.

There were 3,300 fire deaths in the United States, population 320 million, in 2015, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. That's a fire mortality rate of 10.5 per million people. South Korea's fire mortality rate in 2016 was 5.5 per million people.

The flames had largely been extinguished by nightfall, but firefighters were searching the building for more victims. Thick smoke and debris were hampering the effort, authorities said.

Details about the building and its history were unclear Thursday night. Citing local residents, news station JTBC said the building had just reopened after the financially struggling previous owner sold it at auction.

Stiles is a special correspondent.

UPDATES:

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2:45 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details.

This article was originally published at 9:25 a.m.

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