DAEGU, South Korea – Hundreds of people grieving over the victims of a devastating subway fire angrily confronted South Korea's president-elect on Thursday, demanding quick action to identify the dead and return bodies to families.
"Where am I supposed to find my child?" one sobbing woman asked as President-elect Roh Moo-hyun arrived to lay a flower at a makeshift altar for the dead in Daegu, the site of Tuesday's blaze.
Bereaved relatives placed long-stemmed chrysanthemums before the altar, where photographs of some of the estimated 126 dead -- including a picture of a mother and her young son -- were displayed.
Many of the victims were burned beyond recognition when a man who told police he wanted to commit suicide ignited a blaze that engulfed two subway trains.
Investigations Thursday focused on the possibility that human error by train operators may have more than doubled the death toll.
Operators allowed the second train, where more than 70 victims apparently perished, to pull into the blazing underground station even though they knew an earlier train was on fire at the platform, police announced Thursday, citing radio transcripts between the engineer and rail controllers.
Officials also hesitated to evacuate the passengers, wasting minutes that could have saved lives, police said.
As the train approached the blaze, the driver was waved on by a controller who advised only: "When you enter the Joongang Station, drive carefully. There is a fire."
Authorities on Thursday said they had identified only 46 of the dead, and 388 people were still unaccounted for. Officials said the number of missing was inflated by double-reporting and other clerical glitches.
After laying a flower on the altar, Roh made his way slowly through the agitated crowd for a meeting with town officials and representatives of the victims' families.
Later, Roh told families that authorities would identify the victims as quickly as possible and that the government would compensate the bereaved.
"This is something that cannot be solved by money, but the government will make its best efforts to provide assistance for the pain you have gone through," said Roh, who takes office next Tuesday.
Outgoing President Kim Dae-jung said Tuesday he would tone down his farewell ceremonies in deference to the victims, canceling a state dinner and military honor guard salute.
Daegu, South Korea's third-largest city, still appeared to be in shock from the tragedy. Piles of chrysanthemums, traditional funeral flowers, were placed near the subway's entrances. Although some trains were running, most cars were empty.
The arson suspect, Kim Dae-han, 56, has a history of mental illness and was trying to commit suicide, police said. Kim told police "he decided to die with others in a crowded place, rather than die by himself," authorities said.
The suspect, who was hospitalized with light burns, had once threatened to burn a hospital where he received what he considered was unsatisfactory treatment, local media reported.
Subway passengers said he used a cigarette lighter to set fire to a container filled with gasoline or another flammable liquid. Officials said 146 people were injured in the attack, 34 of them seriously.
The fire quickly spread through the six-car train. The second train arrived at the station minutes later and was also engulfed in flames.
Critics said Tuesday's tragedy revealed problems with the nation's emergency response system and a potential vulnerability to terrorism.
Had the train been equipped with fire-resistant seats and floor tiles, many said, it probably would not have burst into flames. And an apparent lack of emergency lighting left victims groping in the dark after the lights went out.
Roh said Thursday he would instruct officials to inspect the South Korean subway system's safety features and upgrade them if necessary "so such an incident never takes place again."
The nationwide network carries 6.5 million passengers daily, and subway officials promised to install emergency lighting, increase the number of exit signs, make car interiors flame-resistant and heighten security.
President Kim designated Daegu a "special disaster area," giving tax breaks and financial aid to victims and businesses.