Korea is still in shock after seeing live pictures of Sungnyemun, widely known as Namdaemun, burning to the ground.
We have had our fair share of tragedy: the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store and Seongsu Bridge, plus the arson attack on the Daegu subway.
However, cameras didn’t catch the moment of the accident. The fire at Naksansa Temple in 2005 still sticks in our memory, because we saw it on TV.
People could do nothing but watch the pitiful footage as the ancient temple burned and the bronze bell melted in the flames.
Viewers who saw those painful images will never forget them. The sounds of people shrieking as they looked on has been burned into the hearts of the people of Korea.
I have vivid memories where I was and what I was doing when I heard about Seongsu and Sampoong just as I recall first hearing about Challenger and the WTC attacks. Among the 32 people killed in the 1994 Seongsu Bridge collapse were several school children trapped on a bus that went off the broken bridge into the Han River. When I recall the Daegu subway fire, etched into my mind is the photographic image of seated passengers covering their mouths and noses, trapped in a gray haze of smoke, desperately waiting for help that took so long to arrive.
For days in the early summer of 1995, I sat riveted in front of the TV as rescue crews worked furiously to find and dig out dying people trapped in the rubble. My heart soared when I heard news of survivors freed after more than a week, strong-willed people who stayed alive by drinking their own urine. I felt bittersweetness for the young man who was the last to be rescued after 16 days underground. Early on, he communicated with a young woman trapped nearby. Water from hoses spraying out fires trickled down into her tomb, filling it with water. She explained to the young man what was happening, asked him to tell her parents she loved them, and told him when he couldn’t hear her voice anymore, he’d know she was gone. I felt deep anger at the greedy owners who fled the building just hours before it collapsed on thousands of shoppers.
There is a memorial on the site of the former department store. Inside are photos of the deceased. I used to live in that neighborhood prior to the collapse and had shopped at the store. While in the area to visit a friend, I engaged in a little “dark tourism” and stopped into the humble memorial to pay my respects to the 500 people who lost their lives there in late June of 1995.
To me, the deeply moving stories of real people facing tragedy, disaster, and violence are far more memorable than seeing a building burn down in real time, no matter how old or lovely the structure.