S. Koreans: Gate may have been left unlocked before Yongsan fire
SEOUL — A Korean Service Corps compound entrance may have been left unlocked before last week’s early-morning fire, South Korean fire officials said.
Gate 22 leads to the corps compound, where one building burned March 16. When off-base firefighters responded, they found the gate unlocked, said fire Chief Lee Jong-whan, head of the fire department for the Seoul city district Yongsan-gu.
“We don’t know that” for certain, U.S. Lt. Col. Robert Paquin, who oversees the Korean Service Corps, said Wednesday. “That’s another thing the investigation would have to tell.”
The fire, the largest in memory at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, destroyed three buildings and critically burned three men, all Korean Service Corps workers. Two buildings were on Yongsan Garrison; a third was on the adjacent service corps compound.
A South Korean woman who allegedly told police she started the fire was found on the compound after the blaze was reported about 1:30 a.m., South Korean authorities have said. How she gained entry remained unclear. She remained in South Korean custody Wednesday, off-base police said.
Paquin said Gate 22 should be locked after duty hours. He said some service corps senior leaders have keys to the lock but the three men burned Thursday morning did not.
He referred all other gate access and security questions to Area II officials, who he said are responsible for the area.
Stars and Stripes on Wednesday asked Area II, 8th U.S. Army and U.S. Forces Korea officials about access and security. The 8th Army public affairs office, through spokeswoman Maj. Tanya Bradsher, released this statement:
“We cannot comment on tactic, techniques and procedures for gate access due to force protection. We do understand that there is public interest in this incident. As soon as the investigation is complete we will be able to comment on security procedures on the night of the incident and any relevant find(ing)s.”
The evening before the fire, Korean Service Corps union members held an election and dinner, union officials have said. When dinner ended after 8 p.m., some workers returned to their office next to Yongsan Garrison to sleep, union officials and one burn victim have said.
Lee Sun-bok, 51, returned to the office about 11 p.m., he told Stripes during a short interview Wednesday from Hangang Sungsim Hospital in Seoul.
He said he decided to stay overnight because he lives on the outskirts of Seoul and had work to do early the next morning. He gave no other details about how he entered the base that evening.
The fire was reported to the South Korean local Yongsan fire station at 1:39 a.m.
Lee said he was burned over 20 percent of his body including third-degree burns on his hands and back. He’s already had several skin grafts but said Wednesday he’s hopeful he’ll return to work.
Lee Byeok-woo, 43, and Jung Ji-hun, 49, remain in the hospital, nurses said. Two other South Korean workers at the building that night escaped unharmed, off-base police have said.
South Korean police are leading the investigation, though U.S. military officials also are involved. Police on Wednesday still awaited tests from a South Korean crime lab to determine what started the fire. That could take up to 30 days.
Kweon Jung-ja, 57, is being held in a detention center outside Seoul. She has yet to be charged. South Korean police can hold her for up to 30 days without charging her.