South Korean police said Monday that fires that killed 37 at a church-run reform school were set by young women desperate to escape who hoped to flee when guards unlocked the dormitory doors.
The early morning fires swept out of control before the doors were opened to let firefighters in.
Many of the dead were packed into restrooms, and news reports said bloodstains and fingernail scratches on the barred windows showed the women’s frantic efforts to escape the flames.
The victims--all but three in their teens--either burned to death or suffocated. One was only 13. Sixteen others were injured.
The school had a history of escape attempts and was known for strict discipline of the girls and women, most of them runaways caught working in brothels and bars. It was run by the Korean Presbyterian Church in Yongin, 35 miles south of Seoul.
Media reports said fires had been set in two other breakout attempts in the past year. Women had complained of poor facilities and harsh treatment for behavior such as smoking and chewing gum.
Police questioned security guards on why it took so long to unlock the doors, after firefighters complained they could not get in before the victims suffocated.
Diaries found in the ruins of the Kyonggi Women’s Technical School told a bleak tale.
“They beat me again today. . . . Life here is so hard that I don’t think I can make it through. Sometimes I want to cry. I want to escape. . . . I want to go out. I thought again about killing myself,” a teen-age girl wrote.