Icheon Fire

Fire at a South Korean construction site kills at least 38 

Key Actors: 
  • Seo Seung-hyun – Head of the Icheon fire department
  • Moon Jae-in –  President of South Korea
The Tragedy in Icheon

On April 29, 2020, a fire broke out on a construction site in Icheon, South Korea. According to authorities, workers were working in the underground level of a four-storey warehouse when a “rapid combustion” occurred. The subsequent fire spread so rapidly that many of the workers were unable to escape the blaze. By the time emergency services were on the scene, the situation was bleak. Although more than 30 workers had managed to escape the fire, many more were trapped below. Currently, around 40 people have died, and many fear that the final death toll may reach up to 78. Of those identified so far, all were male and included two Pakistanis and one Chinese. All were immigrant or irregular workers.

The Investigation Process

Seo Seung-hyun, head of the Icheon fire department, speculates that the ignition of oil mist caused the fire. The sudden combustion that followed gave the workers no change at escape. Seo said that workers on other floors likely died of toxic gas. Upon further investigation, officials now claim that the cause was a chemical called Urethane, which is widely used in construction as a thermal insulator as well as cushioning material. The chemical is highly flammable and was being used in the installation of a freight elevator. 

South Korean president Moon Jae-in called for officials to pool all available resources in the search and rescue mission. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun meanwhile traveled to Icheon to inspect the recovery efforts. Police have questioned 26 people including six company officials who are related to this incident. Another 15 company officials have been banned from leaving South Korea. Documents from multiple construction and operating companies are being reviewed as well. This is a part of their ongoing investigation to see if the building had violated any local building regulations.

Not the First Fire

Despite being one of Asia’s strongest economies, worker safety is still an issue in South Korea. The rapid economic growth of the country may have contributed to an ‘efficiency-over-all’ focus in many Korean businesses. Many people believe in subverting worker safety in order to pursue economic growth. Icheon was the site of another disastrous fire in 2008. 40 workers had died in another enormous fire inside a refrigeration facility. In 2018, a fire quickly spread through a small hospital in Miryang, killing 46 and injuring 153. The hospital had no sprinkler system. Moreover, it occurred less than a year before another fire that ripped through a sports centre. “It is regrettable that a similar accident reoccurred,” Moon was quoted saying, “It means we’ve not learned the lesson from previous accidents.” He offered his condolences to the families of those who have been affected, adding that, “More practical solutions are necessary in order to prevent the recurrence of fires at construction sites,” Although new legislation was introduced in 2018, tightening regulations on working conditions, South Korea still has some way to go before working conditions will be optimal, and perhaps this accident can influence the government to make it the last. 


Investigation under Way to Find Cause of Icheon Warehouse Fire. http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/05/281_288797.html. Accessed 19 May 2020.

South Korea Construction Site Fire Kills at Least 38 | News | Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/south-korea-construction-fire-kills-38-200429120802278.html. Accessed 19 May 2020.

“South Korea Fire: Dozens Killed in Warehouse Blaze in Icheon.” BBC News, 29 Apr. 2020. www.bbc.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-52472799.

South Korea Fire Kills Nearly 40 Construction Workers | World News | The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/30/south-korea-fire-kills-nearly-40-construction-workers. Accessed 19 May 2020.

“South Korea Launches Investigation into Cause of Fire after 38 Workers Die.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Apr. 2020. www.smh.com.au, https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/south-korea-launches-investigation-into-cause-of-fire-after-38-workers-die-20200430-p54oro.html.


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