The collapse of the Sampoong Superstore in Seoul, South Korea, represents an example of a structural collapse attributed in large part to corruption.
The Sampoong department store opened in December 1989. It was a nine-story building with four basement floors and five above grade. The building was laid out in two wings (north and south) connected by an atrium lobby. By the mid-1990s the store’s sales amounted to more than half a million U.S. dollars a day (Wearne 2000, pp. 99-100).
Unfortunately, the store had been built on a landfill site that was poorly suited to such a large structure. Woosung Construction built the foundation and basement and then passed the project onto Sampoong’s in-house contractors. Woosung had apparently resisted some proposed changes to the building plans, such as the addition of the fifth floor (Wearne 2000, p. 100).
Sampoong made significant changes to the structure. The most important were the conversion of the original use as an office block to that of a department store. Other changes included changing the upper floor from a roller-skating rink to a traditional Korean restaurant. Stricter standards had to be met for fire, air conditioning, and evacuation. Although the structure apparently met all building code requirements, the revised design was radically different from the original (Wearne 2000, p. 100).
The building was put into service.
“For five and a half years business thrived. In June 1995 the store passed a regular safety inspection. But within days there were signs something was seriously wrong: cracks spidering up the walls in the restaurant area; water pouring through crevices in the ceiling. On June 29 structural engineers were called in to examine the building. They declared it unsafe. Company executives who met that afternoon decided otherwise. They ordered the cracks on the fifth floor to be filled and instructed employees to move merchandise to the basement storage area “(Wearne 2000, p. 100).
Some employees heard rumors of the structural damage and impending collapse but remained in their departments to work. At 6:00 p.m. on June 29, the center of the building collapsed, similar to a controlled implosion, in about 10 s. The five-story north wing, about 91 m (300 ft) long, fell into the basement, leaving only the facade standing (Wearne 2000, pp. 100-102).
Customers were concentrated in the basement and in the fifth-floor restaurant. The customers and employees had no time to run. Some survivors were found in the wreckage, and one was brought out 17 days after the collapse. The overall death toll was 498 (Wearne 2000, pp. 100-107).
The final report was delivered by the Seoul District Prosecutors Office, entitled The Final White Book of Finding Out the Real Truth of the Collapse of the Sampoong Department Store. The public was outraged. In particular, the news that the senior executives had fled the building without warning others was disturbing. The report on the collapse, as well as earlier structural and construction failures, suggested a widespread pattern of corruption in the country’s construction business. A government survey of high-rise structures found 14% were unsafe and needed to be rebuilt, 84% required repairs, and only 2% met standards. Joon Lee, the chairman of Sampoong, and his son Han-Sang Lee were convicted and sent to prison for 10 1/2- and 7-year terms, respectively. Twelve local building officials were found guilty of taking bribes of as much as $17,000 (U.S. equivalent) for approving changes and providing a provisional use certificate (Wearne 2000, pp. 111-112).
The cause of the Sampoong collapse, then, was not a technical issue as much as outright fraud. The Korean construction industry, protected by government regulation from outside competition, had become complacent. Bribes were used to get around the usual government checks and balances that serve to protect public safety.
This case study is discussed in chapter 10 of the book Beyond Failure: Forensic Case Studies for Civil Engineers, Delatte, Norbert J., ASCE Press. This case study is discussed by Wearne (2000, pp. 99-113) in Chapter 5, entitled Crooked Construction: Sampoong Superstore. A technical paper on the collapse entitled Lessons from the Sampoong Department Store Collapse (Gardner et al. 2002) was published in the Cement & Concrete Composites journal.
Wearne, P. (2000). Collapse: When Buildings Fall Down, TV Books, L.L.C. (www.tvbooks.com), New York. (This book is a companion to The Learning Channel’s television series “Collapse.”)