Let Us Not Forget........

by Anne Ladouceur, 31/12/2008


Every year brings its share of tragedies and 2008 was no exception. There were a number of losses in the expat community in Korea and this article is dedicated to three of them in particular. In February, Bill Kapoun, a 26-year old elementary school teacher for the U.S. lost his life as a result of fire in his apartment building in Haebangcheon in Itaewon, Seoul. There was no smoke or fire alarm in his building, no sprinkler system, and there was only one exit through which no escape was possible since it was blocked by the fire. (For news report, click here)

Bill Kapoun’s friend died in the fire, while he sustained burns over 70% of his body and succumbed to his injuries on March 8. Along with the news what had befallen their son, his parents discovered that the school for which he was legally working had not provided him with health coverage as they were not legally obliged to so do given his contracted number of working hours. (For health insurance information, go to the Working/Business section).

In December, another English teacher lost her life, this time in Mokpo. Nerine Viljoen had been a teacher for 3 years in South Africa, her home, before deciding to come to Korea. She was due to fly back on January 6. She was staying in a friend’s apartment, pet sitting on December 1st, when a fire started in the building as a result of a drunk careless act. She couldn’t get out the door and evidence shows that she tried to get out the windows but was unable to figure out how to open them. She died 10 days later. The Mokpo Police donated over W16 million toward her medical costs. (For more on Nerine, go to this page on  facebook)

In these two cases, colleagues, friends, strangers and family were able to raise the money to cover the medial costs (Bill’s were over W100 million). Both Bill and Nerine were people with a sense of adventure, who wanted to use their education to help others while learning more about the world. Their paths took them to Korea and as much as they loved the country and their work here, to their sad fates.

Mike White had been in Korea for 4 years because of his mother’s job. On May 10th, he had gone with her and one of her friends to an upscale sauna (jimjilbang) in the Daegu area – something they often did. Mike, 14 years old, had to go on his own to the men’s section and there something happened – none of the men in the sauna or the nearby staff has ever given a clear account – with the end result that an ambulance. He died shortly after. His mother’s grief became an even greater nightmare as she tried to find out what exactly had happened in the sauna and by local reactions to the tragedy. (For more about Mike White visit this blog)

Bill, Nerine and Mike still had much to give and much to experience in the long life they should have had. The only consolation for those, who loved them and for all of you reading this article, is that, hopefully, their tragedies will help prevent the same thing happening to us and to others.

Many apartment buildings in Korea are the opposite of fire proof and almost none are equipped with sprinklers or fire alarms, or even smoke detectors. We might not be able to do anything about the first two, but we can see to it that there are smoke detectors with working batteries in each of our rooms and that we have a fire extinguisher (that we know how to use) that is easy to access. When we move in, we need to check out all the escape routes (doors and windows) and we have to have a plan. We also have to remember to share that information with guests. Even if we, personally, are careful about combustibles in our own home, electrical fires are not uncommon here, nor can we prevent the careless behaviour of intoxicated strangers.

When living or traveling abroad (or even in one’s home country) you may save a life if you’ve learned CPR (both Mike’s mother and her friend had that knowledge but between the behaviour of the EMT’s at the scene and the delay in advising them that something had happened, they were not able to do as much as they think they could have otherwise.).

It’s also probably a good idea to try and have another expat with you when you’re in a sauna – preferably someone who, like you, has learned some CPR).

As for health care costs and medical insurance coverage in Korea, one cannot take for granted that one has coverage or that one won’t need any. Teachers (all workers for that matter) need to check and find out if they have medical coverage or not; and if not, take the necessary steps to ensure that you are protected, just in case something does happen.

Our thoughts are with the families and friends of Nerine, Mike and Bill as they begin a new year without their loved ones; and hope that no others will experience the same pain and sadness in 2009.

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Photo: Nerine Viljoen funeral.

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