Tuesday, February 12, 2008

'Restoration of landmark gate to take up to 3 years'

'Restoration of landmark gate to take up to 3 years'

Restoring the Sungnyemun, the 610-year-old national treasure which was destroyed by an overnight fire, is expected to take up to three years and cost about 20 billion won, an official at the Cultural Heritage Administration estimated.

The landmark gate, standing in the heart of Seoul, was reduced to ugly twisted beams and ashes. The gate, better known as Namdaemun, was designated as National Treasure No. 1 in 1962.

Police have yet to determine the cause, but suspect an arson attack because of witnesses' statements and two cigarette lighters found inside the structure. No one was injured in the blaze.

"Though we have yet to discover the exact scale of the devastation, the restoration work will take two to three years," said Kim Sang-gu, a senior official at the CHA. "In 2006, we drew a real-size blueprint of the Sungnyemun as part of our efforts to establish anti-fire systems for major wooden cultural relics, so we can technically restore the archetype of the gate."

President-elect Lee Myung-bak visited the scene of the inferno yesterday, and expressed deep sadness over the collapse of the national treasure.

"(Namdaemun) was a symbolic cultural heritage of our nation; its devastation aches the hearts of the citizens," said the grim-faced Lee.

The fire broke out at around 8:50 p.m. on Sunday somewhere between the first and second levels of the landmark gate. At about 2 a.m. yesterday, the two-tiered wooden structure collapsed.

Police and firefighters are criticized for having failed to promptly respond; they apparently feared that the ancient gate could be damaged by anti-fire efforts.

According to a taxi driver, an eyewitness, the gate was set ablaze about two minutes after a man presumably in his 50s climbed up the stairs to the wooden part of it.

The government held an emergency meeting yesterday, presided over by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo.

During the meeting, it was decided to set up a task force to coordinate the efforts of all parties concerned in ascertaining the exact cause of the fire and restoring the landmark. Administration members spoke of the need to check and strengthen safety measures to protect all the national treasures.

The presidential transition committee also called on investigating authorities and relevant agencies to get to the bottom of the case and take proper measures to deal with it.

"I feel sorry to our descendents for failing to protect the gate. The incoming government needs to check related policies and systems regarding the management of such cultural gems," said Lee Kyung-sook, the committee chairwoman.

Police yesterday launched a full-scale investigation into the fire. However, they have yet to determine the exact cause of the fire, and are leaving open all possibilities.

"We questioned three witnesses, but some parts of their accounts clashed with one another. We also analyzed images from four closed-circuit televisions installed around the gate, but failed to secure the scenes of a suspect moving up the Sungnyemun," said Kim Young-su, head of the Namdaemun Police Station which is handling the case.

He added, "The exact spot and cause of the fire will be verified after the results of the forensic investigation come out."

Police are also looking into whether there was any negligence by those in charge of maintaining the gate. They questioned security guards and supervising personnel.

Experts say that the fire was likely caused by an arsonist, as the flames were first seen from the second floor of the wooden structure where there were no electrical illumination devices. Also, some firefighters found two cigarette lighters at the scene.

By law, anyone who sets fire to a nationally designated cultural relic could face a jail sentence exceeding three years.

Lawmakers criticized authorities for failing to timely and systematically react to the incident to salvage the landmark gate.

"(Authorities) were quite at a loss while I was watching the gate engulfed in flames for five hours. I was wondering whether any national system, in general, functions properly," said Sohn Hak-kyu, the new chief of the United New Democratic Party.

"Since this was presumably an arson fire and people seem to blame the fire department's misjudgment in putting out the fire, we need to thoroughly verify the cause and draw up measures to prevent the repeat of such incident," said Kang Jae-sup, chief of the Grand National Party.

A palpable sense of frustration prevailed among citizens in Seoul regarding the devastated landmark.

"Opening Namdaemun to the general public, the authorities had only six fire extinguishers, which shows how neglectful they were in managing our precious relics. At around 11 p.m. on Sunday, the overall shape of the gate remained pretty intact, but their late response to the fire and the failure to coordinate the efforts of all parties engaged in extinguishing the fire reduced the gate to rubble," said Kim Jae-min, an office worker in Seoul.

"Watching the scene of our best landmark on fire, I felt like one of my close friends was burning alive. Rather than passing the buck, we need to check anti-fire plans once again to prevent another precious treasure from disappearing again," said Shim Gyu-in, a college student in Seoul.

By Song Sang-ho



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