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Sampoong Department Store

January 1, 2018 Comments (0) Views: 521 Urban Trekker

Red alert: Structural failure and collapse

While the history of architecture and engineering is filled with numerous inspiring stories of how humans surpass all known obstacles of forces of nature just to have a structure standing still, there are these other instances, when a building becomes remembered by how famously it went down. In some unfortunate cases, that has, sadly, cost some lives too.

An example of a well-known case of a landmark in the ancient days which have collapsed to the ground is one the old Seven Wonders of the World, the Colossus of Rhodes. The landmark statue that adorned the Greek island of Rhodes was just not designed to survive a strong earthquake, hence once such shake hit the area in 226 BC, the much-praised statue crumbled to pieces, concluding a lifetime being intact of only 54 years.

As much as in ancient times, as much as today, a structural failure of a building is followed by shock, but also as some literary critics have analyzed human perception on catastrophes, there is a dose of fascination and awe. The collapse of the Twin Towers in New York is just one example, an event which has undoubtedly left deep wounds to many Americans. But what else is there? If we could pick one most shocking structural collapse, a failure of a building, possibly one that was not caused by natural disaster or terrorist attack, it was the Sampoong Department Store. It’s a shocking event that took place on June 29, 1995, in Seoul, Korea.

One of the worst days in 1995, caption by the Seoul Metropolitan Fire & Disaster Headquarters, photo credit

The Sampoong Department was erected amid a wave of “aggressive” urban development in light of the Summer Olympics which the city of Seoul was to host in 1988. It was an important moment for entire Asia, as, before this city, it was only Tokyo from the Asian continent to host an edition of the games. Naturally, national companies were in a hurry to build as many new ventures as possible for as quickly as possible, and one of the parties involved was the Sampoong Group. Work on the building that was to be the Sampoong Department Store commenced in 1987.

The entire structure, of two wings, north and south, with an atrium that bridged them together was finished by 1989 and conflicts among executives seemed to have been omnipresent. Originally, only four floors were comprising the structure, and the site was supposed to be a residential development. When a decision was brought that this will be a department store, some support columns were removed to enable space for installing escalators. Instead of security and safety, executives seemed to have been more worried about enough retail space.

The Sampoong department store shortly after the collapse. Except for the end tower, the entire south wing fell upon itself. A rescue helicopter can be spotted hovering above, photo credit

Controversies concerning the building just start here: the edifice, now weakened having not as many columns as principally ascribed, was topped with an extra, fifth floor, to house some restaurants. That meant a considerable increase in the total weight of the structure, and once added, columns were supporting four times more the maximum weight than they should have. Not to mention, supporting columns of the fifth floor mismatched with those on the floor below.

The structure had then gained even more weight following installation of air conditioners. Hence, in April 1995, it was a fact that the first cracks on the ceilings popped up, initially at the fifth floor on the south wing. Cracks continued to appear, but regardless that these were frightening symptoms that something was seriously wrong, the managers of the department did not call for a timely evacuation or a check-up.

Rescue teams at the site of the collapse, photo credit

An ironic applause to Lee Joon, the chairman of the Sampoong department store and the person who believed that the number of visitors at Sampoong that day was “unusually high,” and supposedly he feared he would lose money if he were to close the venture. A regrettable decision, but according to eye-witnesses, he had even been angry at the very thought of closing. At around 5:00 PM local time the ceiling on the fifth floor started to sink, however.

According to the Nat Geo’s Seconds From Disaster feature, hundreds of visitors were inside the building at the moment of the catastrophe, and even in those early moments of the apparent signs that the structure is undergoing ultimate collapse, Lee Joon had not given orders to evacuate. Loud cracks at 5:52 PM announced the total doom, and in the instance of merely half a minute, all columns holding the south wing had given up their strengths in an aftermath that had cost 502 lives. Thousands more had remained trapped in ruins.

To date, this event counts as per the biggest peacetime disaster in South Korea, and one of the deadliest modern building collapses in history.

We also thought to remind you of Ryugyong Hotel – the dark tower of Pyongyang


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