The first thing you think about when the screech of the alarm first reaches you, is that 9.30pm on a Sunday evening is not a likely time to be running a drill. The automated spoken warning that it drowned out may have been meaningless to a non-Korean speaker, but there are times when no translation is necessary to understand the words "Fire. Evacuate. Fire. Evacuate."
There is only one way out of the apartment. And there is only one way out of the building. As you throw on your shoes, grabbing your baby and your dog as you do so, suddenly that one way out – down fifteen flights of stairs passing floors that may be alight – seems like a long and uncertain journey spurred on by the urgency of the alarms. On your journey, you might consider how quickly the blaze in the Haeundae 'Golden Suites' apartment block spread last year, and how as crime-ridden as living in a British house can be, at least you can always jump out of a window in an emergency and survive the fall.
Perhaps this is what comes of growing up in a country that, essentially, has never had a great belief in building upwards. But despite my lack of experience with tall buildings, I still believe I made the right choice in choosing the stairs for our escape, even if – on the evidence I saw – in a fire most Koreans will choose to wait for the elevator. So while a few people joined us on the stairs, it is the frantic movements of the elevator that forms one of my strongest lasting memories from that dark descent.
Korean Mother said she thought she could smell smoke, but I haven't learned to differentiate between that and the smell of Korean cooking. Come to think of it, it's remarkable that the thick haze that often accompanies her frying of large dead fish doesn't set off the smoke alarm in our apartment block.
Outside, a quick visual check of the apartment complex suggested nothing untoward, and we made our way to the janitor's office which had already become an impromptu refugee camp, and as it turned out, a pretty angry one at that.
You see, the reality of apartment block life in Korea seems to be this. There is a janitor's office, and a man sits in it who might be a janitor but he wears a uniform bearing a patch which reads "Security", and given the invariably high age of the wearer, one suspects this is actually short for "Social Security" to indicate their status as retirees. Our Sunday evening janitor didn’t look a day below the age of 70, and with thirty people in various states of agitation facing him, he certainly was aging fast, which he could ill-afford to do.
The problem was this. An alarm had triggered in an apartment that evidently was empty. Normally there is a building maintenance person to hand but tonight there wasn't, and there wouldn’t be until tomorrow morning. The janitor said everything was fine, though lacking any evidence for this it was clearly based on wishful thinking, and people should return to their homes, which they were unsurprisingly reluctant to do. They demanded he checked the apartment. He said he would do it the next morning when a maintenance person came. In Korea's Confucian society the stereotype of people having respect for their elders may be well-founded, but people were beginning to shout, and as it turned out one of the loudest was Korean Mother, which in its way was also unsurprising. In another time and a less patriarchal society, she would have been a fearsome tribal leader. Instead, she is merely fearsome.
The sound of a large diesel engine drew me outside and around a corner, to where a fire engine, lights flashing, had stopped. Firemen, wearing so little in the way of special clothing they had initially blended into the ranks of the evacuees outside, made their way into the janitor's office and then presumably to check the offending apartment. With competent professionals finally on hand, the incident rapidly faded into a non-event and fire or not, we drifted back to our apartment building.
An hour later, an announcement came over our apartment's speaker that the alarm had been caused by a non-fire related problem and the janitor/security guard, who was apparently a stand-in, hadn't known to just turn it off. He would be trained properly. Somehow, this explanation failed to inspire any confidence, because it seemed to beg more questions than it answered.
Many years ago I couldn't get an answer to a mathematics textbook problem unless I slightly altered the question, which I did on the assumption it was a misprint. My teacher wrote in bold angry red letters "Don't change the question to fit your answer!" Recently, in the early days of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, faced with rising levels of radioactivity they simply raised the level of radiation considered as 'safe'. I think if there’s something for the world to learn from Fukushima and the apparent history of cover-ups that preceded it, it is that for all the economic heights it has reached, Japan is often a country that likes to change its questions to fit its answers. And as my time here lengthens, I'm beginning to get a nasty feeling that Korea is exactly the same. So when one of the building's smoke alarm sensors are triggered, the official response is not to investigate the cause, but rather to know how to turn it off. How often is this happening while we sleep unaware in our homes?
The sense of a system that doesn't quite work was only heightened by a woman who said that she'd only heard about the evacuation when a friend outside the building phoned her to ask her why she wasn't outside. It was because the alarms didn’t go off at all on the 20th floor. It hadn't previously occurred to me that the alarms themselves might not work, even though, now I come to think of it, I believe that was one of the many complaints about the apartment building which burned in Haeundae. A sobering thought.
At 2.45am the alarms went off again, but this time they were so quiet I slept through it. In growing evidence of the supposition that people here like to change the question to fit their answers, apparently they'd turned the volume down on the alarms just in case they went off again. Who even knew they could do that? But this is the wrong way to solve the problem. My wife phoned the janitor's office where an evidently confused individual seemed to be struggling to know how to react. The quiet alarm finally ended and ten minutes later my wife phoned again to be told that everything 'seemed' OK. When you have only one way out of your apartment, and one way out of your building, it would be more comforting to think that the people who sat and watched over it could deal in greater certainty with greater competence.
The evening's events had raised another odd observation as well, which is why, of all the people that were outside having hastily evacuated the large apartment complex, was I the only person with a dog?