July 24, 2024

A fire likely sparked by exploding lithium batteries swept through a manufacturing factory near South Korea’s capital on Monday, killing 22 mostly Chinese migrant workers and injuring eight, officials said.

The fire began after batteries exploded while workers were examining and packaging them at the second floor of the factory in Hwaseong city, just south of Seoul, at around 10:30 a.m., fire officials said, citing a witness. They said they would investigate the cause of the blaze.

The dead included 18 Chinese, two South Koreans and one Laotian, local fire official Kim Jin-young told a televised briefing. He said the nationality of one of the dead couldn’t be immediately verified.

An aerial view from across the street shows the charred damage to the top corner of a commercial high-rise building. Below, dozens of helmeted fire and other rescue workers can be seen in miniature.
Firefighters are shown below the lithium battery manufacturing factory in Hwaseong, South Korea. The fire began after batteries exploded while workers were examining and packaging them on Monday morning. (Newsis/The Associated Press)

In the past few decades, many people from China, including ethnic Koreans, have migrated to South Korea to seek jobs. Like other foreign migrants from southeast Asian nations, they often end up in factories or in physically demanding and low-paying jobs shunned by more affluent South Koreans.

Kim also said one factory worker remained out of contact and rescuers continued to search the site. He said that two of the eight injured were in serious conditions.

President, PM visit accident site

The fire started at one of the factory buildings owned by a company named Aricell. Kim said the victims likely failed to escape via stairs to the ground. He said that authorities will investigate if there were fire extinguishing systems at the site and if they worked.

Kim said a total of 102 people were working at the factory before the fire occurred.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo and Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min visited the site later Monday. Han asked officials to provide government assistance for funeral services and support programs for victims’ relatives, according to Han’s office.

A closeup of the top of what appears to be a highrise building, with black charring on the exterior, is shown.
The burned exterior of the factory operated by South Korean battery maker Aricell is pictured after the major fire in Hwaseong. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

TV footage also showed President Yoon Suk Yeol, wearing a safety helmet and a mask, visiting the site with other officials.

Monday’s blaze is one of the deadliest in South Korea in recent years.

In 2020, a fire at a warehouse being built in Incheon 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 Incheon city.

South Korea has struggled for decades to improve safety standards and change widespread attitudes that treat safety as subservient to economic progress and convenience.

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