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Construction site safety under scrutiny after Gwangju collapse

Jan. 12, 2022 - 11:57 By Yoon Min-sik

Safety inspections took place at major construction sites across South Korea on Wednesday, as the search continued for workers missing in Tuesday‘s collapse of a Gwangju apartment building that was under construction.

The Gwangju Metropolitan Government earlier in the day ordered the temporary shutdown on all construction sites in the city run by Hyundai Development Co., the company involved in the accident. HDC, later in the day, suspended work on all of its worksites across the country for emergency safety checks.

Search operations for workers thought to be trapped inside the debris resumed around 11:20 a.m. Wednesday, after a temporary halt due to the possibility of a subsequent collapse.

President Moon Jae-in urged the officials to conduct a “thorough investigation on the underlying reasons behind the recent series of accidents.” In June last year, a building in Gwangju’s Hak-dong collapsed on top of a bus, leaving nine dead and eight injured.

“Place all your efforts in preventing (such accidents) from happening again. ... And make sure Cheong Wa Dae and all the government organizations stay vigilant and establish order for protection of the people,” Moon was quoted as saying by presidential spokesperson Park Kyung-mi.

This photo taken Wednesday shows a collapsed exterior wall of an apartment building under construction in Gwangju. (Yonhap)
The accident occurred around 3:50 p.m. Tuesday when an exterior wall of the high-rise apartment building under construction in Hwajung-dong, Gwangju crumbled, with 394 people working on the site. At least one person was hospitalized with injuries.

“We will cooperate with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transpiration, along with the National Police Agency to discover the cause of the accident, and pursue administrative and legal actions against whoever is responsible,” said Park Nam-eon, head of the city’s civil safety office in a media briefing. He added that the priority is to locate the missing workers, vowing to allocate all resources.

Gwangju will also hold citywide inspections of all of its construction sites, with Mayor Lee Yong-seop heading the emergency team for preventive measures.

Major metropolitan and Provincial governments across the country, including Busan, Daejeon, Daegu, South Jeolla Province, Cheongju, announced plans for comprehensive safety inspections on Wednesday, with a pan-government vice ministers meeting on safety measures at construction sites slated for Thursday.

Yoo Byeong-gyu, the president of the Hyundai Development Company, bows his head during a public apology on Wednesday in Gwangju. (Yonhap)
Experts at the preliminary meeting of the ministerial investigation team raised possibility that shoddy work in connecting the facade to the concrete slab used as the floor of the building may have led to the disaster, and that strong winds may also have been a factor.

HDC released a press release around 3:30 p.m. denying reports that the company rushed the construction, claiming that it was actually ahead of schedule.

The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office forged an investigative team Wednesday to see if any breach of law was involved.

Local newspaper Kyunghyang Shinmun reported Wednesday that HDC had received administrative penalties related to the Hwajung-dong construction in 14 separate cases, paying fines for 12 of them. A total of 324 civil complaints had been filed with authorities since construction started in 2019.

The series of incidents has spurred safety concerns across the country, particularly as HDC had also been involved in the June incident as the primary contractor to tear the building down.

Similar to this case, an investigation into the cause of the accident was ordered by the president himself, along with preventive measures, with the related ministries vowing that such tragedies would not reoccur.

The Gwangju branches of the ruling Democratic Party, main opposition People Power Party, and the minor opposition Justice Party all released statements decrying HDC and calling for safety measures to prevent similar accidents in the future.