Monday, February 11, 2008
Around 8:50 p.m. Korean Standard Time (11:50 UTC) on Sunday, a fire broke out at Sungnyemun Gate (more commonly referred to as Namdaemun Gate), one of the most iconic South Korean landmarks, located in the center of Seoul.
Approximately 30 firetrucks and 90 firefighters were sent to the site and were able to bring the initial blaze under control by around 10:30 p.m.
However, around 10:40 p.m., the fire rekindled at the second floor of the gate, as firefighters were in the process of extinguishing embers. By 11:00 p.m. the fire had spread over to the roof of the gate. The Korean Fire Department reports that the second blaze had started as the Department was seeking permission from the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration to dismantle parts of the gate in order to stop any possible further fires from spreading.
At about 12:40 a.m. of the 11th, the second floor had collapsed, and the fire was spreading to the first floor; at 1:50 a.m. the first floor collapsed.
Officials have yet to reach a conclusion on the origin of fire, and have presented three possibilities; arson, electric faults or accidental origins.
As the interior of the second floor of the Gate is off-limits to civilians, the Korean Fire Department initially eliminated the possibility of arson, and stated that an electric short or spark from the electric lighting could have been the cause. This possibility was later discarded as a firefighter reported, after examination, that there was no electric wiring on the second floor, as Korean Cultural Heritage Administration regulations prohibit it.
Three eye-witnesses have submitted testimonies. A taxi driver has reported seeing a man in his fifties climb up the staircase carrying a shopping bag, shortly after seeing sparks. Police have stated that the driver’s testimony differs in several crucial factors from the other two witnesses.
Firefighters have reported finding two cigarette lighters on the second floor, inceasing the possibility of arson as the cause.
Police have been unable to obtain evidence from the four closed circuit televisions(CCTVs) installed around the gate.
Officials of the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration have stated that restoration will take two to three years and will cost 20 billion won, equivalent of 21 million USD.
Officials report that no sprinklers or fire alarms were installed inside the gate, and only eight fire extinguishers were placed on both the first and second floor.
Namdaemun, built during the Joseon Dynasty, is the oldest wooden structure in Seoul and was entitled ‘National Treasure No. 1’ in 1962 after restoration.
In recent years, arsons started by evangelical Christians have damaged many Buddhist temples and Korean momuments.