A gas explosion in the middle of an intersection packed with morning commuters in the southeastern city of Taegu killed 83 people and injured up to 181 others today, media reports said.
The death toll, cited by Yonhap Television News, a division of the national news agency, was expected to rise as police and rescue workers began to search the site after putting out the flames.
The explosion in the provincial capital of 2.2 million people about 140 miles southeast of Seoul was caused when gas escaping from a broken pipe was ignited by a spark from a nearby construction site, Yonhap TV said.
Moving quickly to dissipate anger, the government called up a nearby army unit to help in the rescue efforts and dispatched its home minister to the explosion site.
South Korean President Kim Young Sam ordered all government offices to pool their efforts and do their utmost to save as many of the injured as possible, presidential officials said.
Home Minister Kim Yong Tae expressed condolences to the families of the victims.
Gas officials said they were investigating the leak and did not know what caused it.
The explosion engulfed about 30 vehicles, including city buses, in flames. About 30 cars fell more than 30 feet into a construction site for a new subway line after the blast tore away metal sheets serving as a road over the excavation, Korea Broadcasting System said from the scene.
Ten buildings and houses near the intersection were destroyed, KBS said, adding that about 20 more cars were crushed and overturned.
Live broadcast showed cars mangled and crushed like paper cups and soldiers trying to lift fallen metal beams and overturned buses to rescue people caught underneath.
Passersby were shown crying and hugging as rescue workers carried out bloodied, unconscious victims from the subway construction site.
Many of the dead were identified as students from a nearby school.
The subway, Taegu’s first, was near completion after more than three years work when the explosion struck.
Today’s gas explosion was the second in four months and is expected to heighten government criticism.
Last December, 13 people were killed and dozens were injured when a gas holding tank at a residential neighborhood in Seoul exploded. The towering flames left 150 people homeless.
Other, smaller explosions resulting from gas accidents have become more frequent in recent years, as more and more homes receive gas through underground pipes. Previously, customers bought gas in huge tanks.
Critics have said the government gas monopoly has haphazardly added more pipes in a rush to add more networks, at the cost of safety.