Career firefighter reflects on his past experience

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Career firefighter reflects on his past experience


On Nov. 1, a concerned citizen called the Gwangjin Fire Station in Gwangjin District, eastern Seoul, alerting authorities that a man was hanging off a rail bridge.

The 119 rescue team was dispatched to the scene, where they found a suicidal middle-aged man barely hanging on to the edge.

Lee Yong-jin, the chief of the rescue team, calmly approached him to have a conversation. The man told Lee that he wanted to kill himself because he felt guilty for causing a traffic accident.

The fire chief comforted the man, telling him personal stories about the times when he himself had made grave mistakes.

But in a split second, the man slipped, nearly falling to his death, but Lee reacted quickly, stretching out his hand and grabbing the man’s wrist. It was a moment when his long-time experience proved its worth.

Lee has been a firefighter for 15 years, and the number of people he has saved surpasses 4,000, he said.

He built up his field experience at fire stations in Gangdong, Dobong and Seocho, and has also taught incoming recruits at the Seoul Metropolitan Fire Academy.

More recently, Lee worked at the National 119 Rescue Headquarters, leading rescue operations during several national disasters, including the sinking of the Cheonan warship in 2010 and the Mt. Umyeon landslide in 2011. But his relief efforts haven’t just been confined to the nation level. He’s also participated in global aid operations.

When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Lee was among the international rescue workers.

When asked about his most unforgettable experience, Lee said it was in 1999 when he was first assigned to a rescue team and was dispatched to the Han River, where a young brother and sister had accidently fallen into the water while they were cycling. But by the time the two were pulled from the river, the little boy had already died.

“I couldn’t fall asleep that night because I felt so guilty that I hadn’t been able to save that boy,” Lee said. “I have been to numerous devastating and frustrating disaster scenes since then, but that incident is the most vivid, even now.”

During the interview, Lee also expressed his thoughts on the tentatively named National Safety Administration, which was proposed to enhance safety supervision and response in the wake of the April 16 Sewol ferry disaster, which left more than 300 people dead.

“Having managed [rescue efforts for] several national disasters, I hope whoever takes office has a diverse array of experience,” he said.


BY KOH SEOK-SEUNG [ypc3c@joongang.co.kr]

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