Ven­ti­la­tion grates of­ten go un­no­ticed

JoongAng Daily - - Metro - BY CHAE SE­UNG-KI AND JANG HYEOK-JIN bong­

“I feel anx­ious ev­ery time I hear the rat­tling sound, be­cause so many peo­ple walk across this ven­ti­la­tion shaft,” said 62-year-old Park who owns a small snack bar next to a sub­way ven­ti­la­tion grate by Myeong­dong Sta­tion, cen­tral Seoul.

Park has run his snack bar in the same lo­ca­tion for a long time now, but a deadly ac­ci­dent on Fri­day in Seong­nam, Gyeonggi, in which 16 peo­ple watch­ing an out­door con­cert fell to their deaths after a ven­ti­la­tion grate col­lapsed, has left him ner­vous and on alert.

The shaft, which mea­sures 10 by 3 me­ters (32 by 9 feet), also has a steel grate on top, sim­i­lar to the one in last week’s in­ci­dent. The Seoul Met­ro­pol­i­tan Gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates that there are more than 5,200 ven­ti­la­tion shafts just like it scat­tered around the cap­i­tal.

When re­porters from the JoongAng Ilbo trav­eled around Seoul, most of the ven­ti­la­tion shafts did not have warn­ing signs or fences to keep peo­ple away.

In some ar­eas like Myeong-dong, the steel grate takes up to two-thirds of the five-me­ter-wide path­way. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple in­un­date this area daily, and the ven­ti­la­tion shaft is so deep that the floor be­low is hardly vis­i­ble. The grate also sits only about five cen­time­ters (about two inches) above ground, and count­less passersby pay no no­tice as they step over it.

Mo­tor­bikes weigh­ing about 150 kilo­grams (330 pounds) — likely owned by mer­chants from the nearby Nam­dae­mun Mar­ket — were also ob- served parked on steel grates. And even the home­less were us­ing them as beds.

When asked why he was sleep­ing atop the grate, one home­less man re­sponded, “I can sleep well be­cause warm wind is com­ing up from the hole.”

The sit­u­a­tion wasn’t much dif­fer­ent in the Jongno area, ei­ther. The neigh­bor­hood, just north of Myeong­dong, boasts a num­ber of jew­elry shops, cram schools and cafes.

One ven­ti­la­tion grate in front of a jew­elry shop was sunk so low that a per­son could eas­ily stick his or her fin­gers through the gap be­tween the steel plates. The steel grate was also dis­con­nected from the top of the tun­nel and light enough for a per­son to lift it.

“I used to run across the grates when go­ing to and from cram school,” said a univer­sity stu­dent sur­named Bang who at­tends an English school in Jongno. “They should at least place a warn­ing sign here.”

Au­thor­i­ties and sub­way op­er­a­tors be­lat­edly put up warn­ing signs on a few ven­ti­la­tion grates after the ac­ci­dent, but such im­me­di­ate mea­sures only ap­peared to go so far.

A ven­ti­la­tion grate by a sub­way sta­tion in Gwangjin Dis­trict, east­ern Seoul, was af­fixed with a warn­ing sign that read: “Dan­ger. Don’t climb up.” But it was too small to at­tract the at­ten­tion of passersby.

Some signs weren’t even prop­erly placed and looked like de­bris or refuse. Some peo­ple glanced at the signs but still walked across the steel grates.

The reg­u­la­tion by the Min­istry of Land, In­fra­struc­ture and Trans­port con­cern­ing such struc­tures only stip­u­lates the vol­ume and in­ter­val of ven­ti­la­tion and does not in­clude any­thing about safety or warn­ing signs.

Since the ac­ci­dent, an­a­lysts have pointed out the need for stricter safety reg­u­la­tions re­gard­ing ven­ti­la­tion shafts as well as for pedes­tri­ans to prac­tice cau­tion.

“The les­son of this ac­ci­dent is that the struc­tures th­ese peo­ple climbed on should be able to bear more weight — and they should be less ac­ces­si­ble,” said Prof. Je Jin-joo, who teaches pub­lic safety at the Univer­sity of Seoul. “But even if we have sys­tems in place that are safe enough, such ac­ci­dents can hap­pen at any time if we lack the common sense to take care of our­selves first.”

By Choi Jeong-dong

Peo­ple stand on the side of a ven­ti­la­tion grate as they watch a per­for­mance on Satur­day in front of the Deoksu Palace in cen­tral Seoul.

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