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Shopping mall collapse kills 62 in South Korea

A five-story shopping mall collapsed Thursday, killing at least 62 people and injuring 850. About 30 people were trapped in the rubble.

A massive rescue operation was televised by all TV networks, leaving this nation anguished over yet another tragedy attributed to slipshod construction and poor government oversight.

"Endless disaster, disaster, disaster," a newspaper headline declared. Another called South Korea the "kingdom of accidents."

Some 40,000 people shop daily at the Sampoong Department Store complex, which collapsed at 6 p.m. Police said the operators of the building apparently knew for hours that the top floor _ which housed a food court and a swimming pool _ was crumbling, but they failed to warn anyone.

A bloodied Han Jung Suk told KBS-TV he was among several dozen people in the store lobby about 6 p.m.

"I felt the building wavering, and moments later, several store employees rushed down from upper floors," he said.

Witnesses said the collapse occurred from the top down. One motorist said the street was showered with goods and shoppers' purses.

About 1,500 rescue workers, 500 firefighters and hundreds of volunteers were at the scene. The U.S. military was sending rescue equipment from Hawaii.

A sales clerk was pulled from the wreckage early today. She was conscious, her face bloodied, as rescuers carried her out on a stretcher to cheers. Another woman managed to walk out, leaning heavily on her rescuers, two hours earlier.

The rescues raised hopes that others were alive in the debris, despite worries that thick smoke from an underground fire might have suffocated survivors.

One man appealed for his legs to be amputated if it meant he would live.

"I saw a woman trapped inside; she was still conscious and crying for help. We gave her water but were unable to do anything else," said rescue worker Im Choon Nam.

Fifteen cranes lifted out huge slabs of concrete, but workers complained they didn't have enough equipment to cut through the tangle of concrete and steel.

Kim So Jung, owner of one of the restaurants on the top floor of the mall, told MBC-TV that the pressure of the collapse created winds that sent people flying. He had reached the first of four basement levels when the building went down, and found a hole to crawl out.

"I barely escaped death," Kim said. "It's like hell."

The mall's two buildings, connected by a three-story lobby, were built on a slope over a former garbage dump. The mall had 556 shops on five floors above ground and four basements. About 700 salespeople and hundreds of office employees worked there.

"For a building to collapse as it did, it seems likely that the building was faulty from the planning stage," said Cho Dae Sung, an engineering professor at Sungkunkwan University.

The government promised to do all it could to severely punish those responsible.

In the past six months, two deadly gas explosions have killed 113 people. A bridge collapse in October in Seoul killed 32 people.