South Korean protester held as suspect in Yongsan Garrison fire
SEOUL — A South Korean woman who had protested outside a Yongsan Garrison gate for the last month is the lead suspect in a Thursday morning fire that’s being called the biggest blaze on the U.S. military base in at least 35 years, according to South Korean and U.S. officials.
But South Korean officials still are considering that the blaze may have been accidental, said Jang Kyoung-seok, the chief detective at the local Yongsan police department. The woman was to be transferred this weekend to a detention center in the middle of the country, where she could be held for as long as a month without being charged, he said.
Police also have requested a mental evaluation of the woman, identified as Kweon Jung-ja, 57. She has been seen frequently outside of Yongsan Garrison complaining about the South Korean government and asking the United States for help, Jang said.
On the night of the fire, she was at the scene yelling that she had started it, South Korean police have said.
The Korean National Police are leading the fire investigation, though U.S. military fire and criminal officials also are working the case, officials from both countries said Friday.
The cause of the fire and its starting point still were unknown Friday, Jang said. Samples from the ashes were collected for tests, with results possibly available in 10 days, he said.
Three South Korean on-base workers burned in the fire remained hospitalized Friday. Two other South Korean workers, who escaped unharmed, were being questioned by authorities but not detained, Jang said.
Damage estimates also were unknown Friday, though U.S. officials said two buildings were destroyed and another likely would be unusable.
“There is a substantial amount of equipment lost and it will take some time to provide an accurate estimate,” Col. Ron Stephens, Area II commander, said in a written statement.
The fire started sometime before 2 a.m. and burned for at least three hours before it was brought under control. More than 130 firefighters responded, including South Korean firefighters from 22 stations, officials said Friday.
“My senior firefighters, who have been here more than 35 years, say this was the largest fire they’ve ever fought,” said Chief Alex Temporado, the top fire official for Area II.
Police have been unable to formally interview the three men who were burned in the fire. Two of those men remained in a burn unit at Hangang Sungsim Hospital in Seoul, though all three are conscious, a nurse said Friday. One man, who was burned over 60 percent of his body, was using a respirator to breathe, she said.
The fire burned two Directorate of Public Works buildings on Yongsan Garrison and a third building on an adjacent compound used by the 9th Korean Service Corps unit. The service corps is a paramilitary group that provides the U.S. military grounds maintenance support during peacetime and would draw on its reserves to provide similar support during war.
On Wednesday night, five service corps workers had returned to that building after a union dinner, Jang and others have said. The workers had been drinking, though it was unclear how much, Jang said.
At some point, all five men fell asleep. One of the men, Lee Guen-sang, told police he was awakened by a noise outside the building, Jang said. Smoke was beginning to fill the room, Lee told the police.
Lee, who was not harmed in the fire, found Kweong screaming that she started a fire, Jang said. Lee and another man, Kim Jin-su, escaped the building unharmed, Jang said. They later told police they didn’t know that there were other people sleeping in the building, Jang said.
It was still unclear Friday how Kweon was able to get inside the compound.
The Korean Service Corps controls access to its compound, according to Lt. Col. Carol Schmidt, spokeswoman for U.S. Forces Korea. It has one point of entry, Gate 22, near Yongsan Garrison’s Gate 1, Schmidt said.