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Fears S. Korea subway toll will rise

Many of the injured are suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation.
Many of the injured are suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation.

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CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon shows the aftermath of the subway fire in South Korea that claimed at least 120 lives. (February 18)
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CNN's Dave Johnson reports on the deadly subway fire in Daegu, South Korea. (February 18)
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DAEGU, South Korea (CNN) -- The death toll in South Korea's subway fire tragedy is expected to rise as rescue workers scour the site for more victims of the inferno.

The fire -- believed to be the work of a mentally unstable arsonist -- has claimed at least 120 lives and injured more than 130.

But officials say as many as 165 people are missing and grave fears are held for their safety.

Authorities said they planned to collect DNA evidence on Wednesday to help identify the victims and determine the death count.

Witnesses said a passenger ignited a container filled with a flammable liquid to start the inferno.

Police officials said people were burned, trampled and suffocated to death in the smoke-filled subway station and on board two crowded commuter trains.

Police suspect the fire was an arson attack and they are questioning a 46-year-old man witnesses say got onto a subway train, carrying a black bag with a plastic container inside.

"The man was playing with a cigarette lighter. An elderly person asked him not to do so and pushed him," an eyewitness reported. "Suddenly, the man dropped the lighter and a fire started.

"People ran to him and pushed him to the ground but had to run out from the subway because the fire and flames started spreading."

The fire eventually spread from that train to another passing train. It is not clear as yet how many cars were on each train.

Trapped passengers made last desperate cell phone calls to friends and relatives before they were overcome by smoke, South Korean television reported.

With the fire largely extinguished three hours after it was ignited at 0955 (0255GMT), firefighters wearing breathing gear searched the station and surrounding tunnels for those trapped and missing.

'Toxic gas'

Ambulances ferried the injured to hospitals across the city
Ambulances ferried the injured to hospitals across the city

Rescuers initially had trouble entering the station to tackle the blaze because of heavy black smoke and toxic gases billowing out of the tunnels.

Among the dead recovered so far are the bodies of 14 subway employees found on a station platform where they had been trapped by the fire.

Police have not given any indication as to the motive for the attack and do not as yet know what was in the carton.

But investigators believe the incident is isolated, with police sources saying the man in custody has a history of mental problems.

The man was being treated for burns when he was apprehended at a hospital, according to reports.

In the minutes after the blaze broke out, thick smoke poured from the subway entrances and ventilation shafts.

Dozens of fire engines rushed to the scene and ambulances ferried the injured to hospitals across the city.

YTN, a national cable news channel, reported that some of the injured were in a serious condition, many suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation.

The single subway line runs through the center of Daegu, the third largest city in South Korea with a population of about 2.5 million.

-- From CNN Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-ae and Correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon


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