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Grim search in S. Korean subway

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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DAEGU, South Korea -- A final search of the subway station gutted by fire in Daegu, South Korea has not found any survivors, officials say, raising fears the death toll from the tragedy could rise further.

At least 124 people are now believed to have died in the blaze with hundreds of others injured or listed as missing.

Only 27 of the dead have been positively identified so far, with more than 70 unidentified charred bodies still on the two train carriages that were engulfed by the fire.

Tuesday's fire was believed to have been started by a 56-year-old mentally unstable man who ignited a container of inflammable liquid before hurling it onto a train stopped at Chungang-ro subway station.

"Because people could have hidden to escape the smoke, last night we did a final search but we have found nothing," Daegu Mayor Cho Hae-nyoung told reporters early Wednesday.

Forensic experts have now begun the grisly task of gathering and sifting through the scorched bodies and soot-blackened remains in order to identify the victims.

Authorities said about 300 people were reported missing but added that the number was greatly inflated.

"That doesn't mean that all of them were killed yesterday," disaster official Koo Bon-kun said. "People just report their family members who did not return home."

The number of injured posted on a board at the emergency center was put at 142, with 165 missing, According to Reuters.

It was unclear whether the missing included the 70 or more corpses which were still in the trains.

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 say they are treating the incident as arson and are questioning a 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.

'Toxic gas'

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

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

The fire began in one train at the station, igniting seats and the plastic floor before spreading to another train, officials told AP.

More people died in the second train because many of the doors failed to open, trapping passengers.

Police investigating the blaze have been questioning subway officials over their actions in the initial moments of the tragedy.

One officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the fire crippled the communication system, and subway officials apparently could not warn the second train of the fire.

Police have not given any indication as to the motive for the attack and do not 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.

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.

-- CNN Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-ae and Correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon contributed to this report

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