DAEGU, South Korea – Park Chang-shik charged down the smoke-clogged subway stairs in the hope of finding survivors. Instead, he found a scene of death: bodies of victims choked as they fled for safety and the ash-white bones of those who perished in the flames.
Park, a 45-year-old firefighter, was one of thousands of rescue workers on hand Tuesday battling a subway train blaze set by an arsonist and fighting smoke and heat to pull those still alive from danger.
"There were white bones scattered on the floor mixed with people's burned belongings — there was even a skull," he said, soot caking his face. "I brought up four bodies. They were lying on the stairs. I didn't even have time to feel terrible."
Firefighters combed through subway cars where the fire melted steel frames and scorched plastic linings and seat cushions. When they found groups of bones, they covered them with white linen for later identification.
Chun Tae-ryong, a 34-year-old firefighter, rushed in and out of the scorched subway tunnel more than a dozen times in a desperate attempt to save people.
"Everything that can be burned has been burned, the chairs and everything," Chun said. "I brought out five people. Three were alive when I rescued them, but I don't know what happened to them. They were making noises but could not talk."
Firefighters in orange suits and oxygen masks were the mainstay of rescue efforts at Daegu, South Korea's third largest city, 200 miles southeast of Seoul. They were joined by police officers and other workers.
The scene on the surface was one of desperation and mourning. Hundreds of citizens and dazed family members gathered outside the police line, fending off the acrid gas with handkerchieves and masks and waiting for word from rescuers emerging from the subway.
Kim Dae-wook, 30, was looking for his mother Seok Palchundae.
"She always takes the subway at this time to buy groceries. She doesn't have a cell phone," Kim said. "I've been to five hospitals and checked all the dead or missing lists, but couldn't find her name."
Some relatives of the missing said officials might not have reacted quickly enough. Several said they'd heard from victims via cell phones that the train doors locked shut, trapping them inside the incinerating cars.
Kim Bok-sun, 45, said her 21-year-old daughter Kang Yeon-ju called her on the mobile phone from the ill-fated subway train.
"She only said that there was a fire and the door wasn't opening. So I told her to just break the window and come out," the mother said. She called police and then called her daughter again.
"But she never answered the phone," the mother said.