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Fire kills 9 detainees in Yeosu

18 injured, some seriously, in blaze at immigration holding center  PLAY AUDIO

Feb 12,2007
A firefighter checking the detention cell at an immigration center in Yeosu, South Jeolla province, where a fire broke out at about 4 a.m. [YONHAP]
YEOSU, South Jeolla ― A deadly pre-dawn fire yesterday at an immigration detention center operated by the Justice Ministry resulted in nine deaths and 18 injuries, some serious.
The fire, in Yeosu, South Jeolla province, took the lives of eight Chinese nationals and one Uzbeki citizen. The injured have been taken to several hospitals in the area. All were being held pending deportation as illegal aliens here.
Officials said the death toll could rise; most of those killed and injured suffered from smoke inhalation during the fire in the four-story immigration office and detention center where 55 people awaiting deportation procedures were being held.

The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, but some officials said investigators are looking at arson as a possibility. The blaze broke out at 3:55 a.m. yesterday on the third floor of the center, which housed male detainees. The fourth floor was a detention area for women.
The nine guards on duty at the time attempted to fight the fire with extinguishers, but were reportedly unable to find the keys to the steel-barred room where the fire broke out. It was extinguished by more than 100 firefighters in about an hour, after it had spread to two other rooms on the same floor. No employees or firefighters were reported injured.

Survivors receiving treatment at a nearby hospital. Officials said some of the 18 injured may not survive. [NEWSIS]
Officials said their suspicions about arson were related to several incidents several hours before the blaze broke out, in which a detainee in the room where the fire started repeatedly tried to block the security camera lenses with wet tissue. The fire, they speculated, may have been set as part of an escape attempt.
Most of the inmates at the facility were from China, both ethnic Chinese and Koreans. There were also a handful of citizens of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other nearby countries.
The names of the victims have not yet been released.
Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook called the justice minister yesterday and ordered a full investigation of the incident. The ministry said it would form a committee to look at fire safety measures in that facility and in other detention centers around the country.
The Justice Ministry also said it will seek the help of Korea’s diplomatic missions to bring family members of the deceased to Korea as soon as possible. The Foreign Ministry is also notifying the Seoul missions of the deaths of or injuries to their nationals.
Fire officials said yesterday that the building had passed a fire safety inspection in December, although it had no sprinkler system installed; under Korea’s fire safety regulations, those systems are required only for buildings more than 11 stories tall, regardless of their use.


By Lee Hai-suk JoongAng Ilbo [africanu@joongang.co.kr]


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