Days after rescuers all but gave up hope, a man trapped for 9 days under tons of rubble was pulled alive today from the wreckage of a department store that collapsed and killed at least 151 people.
“Save me. Please save me. Water. Quickly,” rescuers quoted Choi Myong-suk, 21, as saying in a faint voice that alerted them to life in the debris just minutes after they found two bodies. Two more bodies were found later.
Korean television broadcast the scene live to a nationwide audience as workers using torches and power drills cut through concrete slabs and pulled Choi free an hour later.
Choi was found in what had been the upscale Sampoong Department Store’s first basement, the underground level closest to the surface. He sold children’s shoes on the second floor and said he was leaving a restaurant on a lower floor when he felt the building begin to shake.
“I started to run, and then the building collapsed,” he told reporters after being taken to a hospital. “I yelled to see if others were around, and others also yelled.”
More than 900 people were injured when the five-story mall caved in June 29 in one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters. Rescuers had given up on finding anyone else alive and begun using heavy equipment to remove debris.
About 400 family members of people still missing tried to march to the disaster site today. Stopped by a line of police a block from the store, the marchers beat them with umbrellas, sticks and their fists, chanting, “Find the missing!” and “We want a president who cares about lives!”
As the work went on, Choi’s father and uncle, both volunteer rescue workers, and his mother rushed to the scene. The parents appeared to be almost in shock.
Shirtless, Choi was carried in a stretcher to a waiting ambulance, a towel around his head to protect his eyes from the overcast daylight after so much time in the darkness.
At Kangnam Seong-mo Hospital, Choi told reporters he was unhurt. After being reunited with his parents, he said his only wishes were food and a cola.
Dr. Kim Min-chul said Choi was dehydrated but his blood pressure and other vital signs were normal, and he could be released in about a week.
“I thought, is this a dream, or is this real?” his mother said.
“I feel like I could fly,” said his father, Choi Bong-ryul, 52, still wearing his hard hat.
Choi said he was forced to squat the entire time in a space 4 feet wide, had nothing to eat and survived on rainwater that seeped through the wreckage. He said he could smell rotting bodies around him.
“When I was too hungry, I ripped a bit of a box to eat,” he said from his hospital bed. “I thought I was trapped for maybe five days at most. I slept when I got sleepy. What was most difficult was that when it wasn’t raining, there wasn’t any water.
“I thought of my parents, my friends. I did think that I would die. There were others around me, but they are dead. There was a woman next to me, but she died. Before she died, she said she would go first.”
As they worked, rescuers communicated with Choi and could see him wave a hand.
It was not known how he survived so long. The human body usually cannot last more than three days without water.
Choi said he became frustrated several times as he heard rescue workers nearby. “They would dig, and go away, dig, and go away,” he said. “Then, there was a bang, and there was light. I yelled out, help me, help me.”