December 22, 2017 / 5:42 AM / 6 months ago

South Korean city cancels Olympics celebration as it mourns blaze victims

SEOUL, Dec 22 (Reuters) - The small South Korean city of Jecheon was reeling Friday, a day after a fire ripped through an eight-storey building, killing at least 29 people, mostly women trapped in a sauna, on what should have been a day of celebration ahead of the Winter Olympics.

Organizers called off a leg of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games torch relay as President Moon Jae-in arrived to comfort mourners.

Jecheon's mayor told reporters the city was considering a mass funeral and planned to cover most of the costs.

All but one of the victims had been identified, including 20 women who were overcome by toxic fumes in a second-floor sauna, Jecheon fire chief Lee Sang-min said.

"Our crew on the scene said the lockers inside the facility were installed like a labyrinth and it’s a glass building with few windows, which apparently made way for the smoke from the first floor to quickly fill up the second floor," Lee told reporters.

Investigators were still trying to find out the cause of the conflagration, but were focusing on a first-floor parking lot, he said.

"There were cars parked on the first floor, and as they were burning, a large amount of toxic gases were released."

Tragic stories began to emerge as victims were identified.

One man told the Yonhap news agency that he lost his mother, wife, and daughter. Another said he received a phone call from his trapped wife as she coughed in the gathering smoke, but was later unable to reach her again.

Heavy smoke charred glass facade of the building as firefighters struggled to extinguish the blaze, climbing up and down a ladder in a desperate search for survivors.

"We thought that having a torch relay at a place where so many people died in a fire accident is just not right, and therefore cancelled today’s event in Jecheon," Ryu Hoyon, the torch relay manager for the Pyeongchang organising committee, told Reuters. "We are planning to adjust further schedules with those who want to continue the relay."

Jecheon is southeast of the capital Seoul and is popular with visitors to its mountains and lakes. The Games begin in February. (Additional reporting by Dahee Kim; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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