For the two shopping mall saleswomen, the difference between life and death was just a few feet.
When the 500-store complex collapsed in a huge heap June 29, Yoo Ji-hwan dashed toward an exit. The next thing she knew, she awakened in the dark to find herself trapped in a pocket not even big enough to sit in and hemmed in by broken blocks of dangerously unstable concrete.
She was found alive and surprisingly healthy Tuesday by rescuers, having survived on the drippings of rainwater. Just three feet away, the mangled body of her 20-year-old co-worker, Lee Suk-yong, was discovered in the rubble. The two were not close friends but knew each other.
“Another Miracle!” the national newspaper Chosun Ilbo blared in a banner headline.
“This proves that God exists,” said one rescuer.
To the delight on her mother, Yoo was dragged from her darkened tomb near where a 21-year-old man was pulled out alive Sunday. Her mother screamed deliriously from the rescue site, “She is alive! She is alive!” and then broke down in tears.
Yoo’s father, sick and bedridden for three years, watched the rescue live on television.
The dramatic discovery of Yoo, a 19-year-old sales clerk at the Sampoong Department Store, transfixed the nation. She was the 26th person pulled alive from the debris since the June 29 collapse, one of Korea’s worst peacetime disasters.
The death toll rose to 219 Tuesday with the discovery of 12 more bodies. About 220 remain missing and feared dead. Nine hundred people in the complex were hurt but survived.
Yoo said thoughts of her mother and rainwater that trickled into a blanket nearby was her salvation.
“I thought that I would be squeezed to death,” Yoo told reporters of the concrete slabs that settled on top of her. “But I thought about my mother and didn’t lose courage. Now, I want to go home and drink a glass of coffee with ice cubes in it.”