This Day In History: February 18

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On February 18, 2003, a man ignites a gasoline-filled container inside a subway train in Daegu, South Korea. The blaze engulfed the six-car train, before spreading to another train that pulled into station a few minutes later. In all, 198 people were killed and nearly 150 others were injured.

The arsonist was later found to be a 56-year-old unemployed former taxi driver named Kim Dae-han. Kim had been left partially paralyzed after suffering a stroke in November 2001, and is believed to have been mentally unbalanced at the time of the arson. He later told police that he had wanted to commit suicide, and chose a crowded place to do so because he did not want to die alone.

Kim started the fire at 9:53 a.m., as train 1079 was entering Daegu’s Jungango Station. He then escaped the burning train, along with some other passengers. Within two minutes, the fire had spread to all six cars of the train. At 9:57, a second train pulled into the station and was also set ablaze. The second train’s driver fled the scene shortly thereafter without opening the train doors; all 79 of the train’s passengers were trapped on board and killed. Meanwhile, the platform–which was not equipped with sprinklers–was filled with toxic smoke and flames, causing delays in the rescue effort. The fire was not extinguished until more than three hours later.

Kim was the not the only person arrested in the wake of the fire: Two subway drivers and and five subway officials were also charged with negligent manslaughter for failing to safely evacuate passengers. Kim Dae-han was sentenced to life in prison on August 6, 2003. The drivers were sentenced to four and five years in jail, while two of the subway officials were given three-year terms. The three other officials received suspended sentences.

Kim Dae-han died in prison in August 2004.