SEOUL, Jan 20 (Reuters) – A fire swept through part of a shanty town in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, on Friday, destroying 60 buildings, many made of cardboard and wood, and forcing nearly 500 people to evacuate.
It took emergency workers five hours to put out the blaze, which broke out before dawn in the village of Guryong, a high-rise complex off a highway from Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district. Officials said no injuries have been reported so far.
Home to about 1,000 people, Guryong is one of the last remaining towns in the capital and has become a symbol of inequality in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Tens of helicopters and hundreds of firefighters, police and soldiers were involved in the fire which, according to government officials, destroyed about a tenth of the 600-plus houses in Guryong.
“I saw light coming from the kitchen when I opened the door, and flames were blowing into the neighboring houses,” said Shin, a 72-year-old woman whose house was gutted in the fire.
“So I knocked on every door nearby and said ‘fire! then they called 119,” he said, giving only his first name.
Kim Doo-chun, 60, said his family was not affected by the fire but told Reuters the village was vulnerable to disaster because of its cardboard houses and narrow streets.
“If a fire breaks out in this area, the whole village could be in danger if we don’t respond quickly. So we have been responding together for many years,” said Kim, who has lived in the area for 30 years.
The area has been prone to fire and flooding, and safety and health issues have increased.
The government unveiled plans to rehabilitate and relocate the massive fire in late 2014, but these efforts have made little progress amid a decades-long battle between landowners, residents and the government.
Seoul and Gangnam district officials and developers have been at loggerheads over how to pay private landowners in Guryong and have yet to agree on whether residents, many of whom are homeless, are entitled to government assistance for relocation and housing.
After being informed of the fire while in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered all efforts to prevent a major disaster, his spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye said.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon visited the smoldering village and asked officials to prepare to evacuate affected families.
Hyonhee Shin reports; Edited by Christian Schmollinger, Gerry Doyle and Simon Cameron-Moore
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