Three men critically injured in fire at Yongsan Garrison
Stars and Stripes March 18, 2006
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — A South Korean woman, possibly protesting U.S. policy, was being questioned Thursday afternoon after a fire on the headquarters U.S. military base in Seoul critically burned three men and severely damaged three buildings, according to U.S. military and South Korean authorities.
The fire, which was reported before 2 a.m. Thursday, left three South Korean workers in critical condition, including one man with burns over 60 percent of his body, according to South Korean hospital officials.
It was unclear Thursday afternoon what started the fire, which spread through two buildings on Yongsan Garrison and a third building on an adjacent compound housing South Korean workers, according to Korean police and a U.S. Forces Korea spokeswoman. South Korean police said late Thursday they had not ruled out that the fire could be accidental.
The woman, 57, was not a base worker, police said. The Associated Press quoted one police official who said she had a record of treatment for mental disease. As of Thursday evening, she was detained but had not been charged, according to police.
Off-base police also were questioning two South Korean workers. Those men, with the three who were burned, fell asleep Wednesday night inside a building on the compound next to Yongsan after a night of dinner and drinks, said police and a South Korean union leader.
The Criminal Investigation Command at Yongsan, Korea National Police and Area II Support Activity Fire Department all are investigating, according to Lt. Col. Carol Schmidt, USFK spokeswoman. USFK officials declined to comment on details of the investigation.
The blaze took on-base crews and 137 South Korean firefighters from the nearby community more than three hours to contain, according to an off-base fire chief. It ripped through buildings used by the Korean Service Corps and the Army’s Directorate of Public Works, leaving most in ashes. In some cases, only exterior walls were left standing.
Korean National Police said the woman in custody, identified only by her family name Kweon, was found at the scene shouting: “I started a fire with a lighter after sneaking into the base to punish [the U.S.] for its terrorist activities.”
Police said that after being taken into custody, the woman began making contradictory statements aimed at both U.S. and South Korean governments.
Several people told Stars and Stripes the woman appeared to have been found on the South Korean compound, not on Yongsan Garrison. That area has only one entry point, Gate 22, according to Schmidt. Information on how that gate is monitored was unavailable Thursday evening.
The three men who were burned work for the Korean Service Corps, 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.
The three were in the 9th Service Corps Unit, which had a union election and dinner Wednesday night, according to Ji Hyun-tae, the overall South Korean worker union leader. Alcohol was consumed at the dinner, Ji said.
Ji said at about 8:30 p.m., five male workers returned to the service corps offices. He said he didn’t know why they did so, but it appears they fell asleep.
Three of those men were burned, Ji said. They were taken to Hangang Sungsim Hospital in Seoul, which authorities said has a special unit to care for burn victims.
Lee Sun-bok, 51, suffered burns on 20 percent of his body; Lee Byeok-woo, 43, suffered burns on 60 percent of his body; Jung Ji-hun, 49, also is burned and was breathing through a respirator Thursday afternoon, according to nurses at the hospital.
The fire burned through a series of connected DPW offices that house maintenance operations for heating, electrical, air conditioning, kitchen equipment, painting, masonry and refrigeration. Some of the burned rooms had remnants of office furniture, offices, with desks and chairs left blackened and soaked. Others were just shells filled with black soot and water.
South Korean fire Chief Lee Jong-whan, who runs the off-base Yongsan-gu station, said fighting the fire proved difficult, especially because his men were unfamiliar with the exact locations of buildings inside the base. He also said his firefighters didn’t know whether they were battling a fire in buildings used for any chemical storage.
USFK said the fire would not affect its peninsula-wide military training exercise, Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration, which officially runs March 24-31.
Three buildings dating to 1952 were burned in Thursday’s fire, two on Yongsan Garrison and one on an adjacent compound housing the 9th Korean Service Corps.
The 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. Its compound is surrounded and accessed by Gate 22, which does not lead into Yongsan Garrison. The DPW buildings that burned are next door, near Gate 1, on Main Post.
Building 1300 is a U-shaped building that houses offices for the Directorate of Public Works that takes work orders for maintenance. It also houses a Korean Service Corps office.
Building 1346 is the DPW’s heating office.
Building 1319 is on the Korean Service Corps compound and used by the 9th unit.
The Directorate of Public Works will continue to take work orders for on-base housing problems. For non-family housing personnel, call DSN 724-3360. For family housing, call DSN 736-GOGO or DSN 736-4646.
Source: USFK Public Affairs Office