Police book employees, Sri Lankan over oil blaze

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Police book employees, Sri Lankan over oil blaze

Police booked five suspects Tuesday on charges related to a massive fire that blazed through an oil tank for over 17 hours at a storage facility in Goyang, Gyeonggi, last month.

Mismanagement by the facility’s 51-year-old chief manager and two of its safety engineers allowed a sky lantern to cause the fire at the outdoor oil tank on Oct. 7, police said. A 27-year-old Sri Lankan man, who originally lit the lantern at a nearby construction site where he was working, was also booked on a misdemeanor arson charge.

A 60-year-old former labor inspector for the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy was also booked for doctoring official documents related to safety equipment at the facility.

Police have resolved not to seek immediate arrest warrants for any of the suspects.

Though it left no human casualties, the fire burned through 2.82 million liters (17,737 barrels) of oil that day, causing over 11.7 billion won ($10.4 million) in damages to the Daehan Oil Pipeline Corporation, which owns the gas storage station.

Surveillance footage revealed that the fire had been caused by a sky lantern released by the Sri Lankan man, who said he lit the discarded lantern out of curiosity.

The lantern landed on a pile of dried grass near the oil tank that was left over after workers mowed the grass around the tanks. It started a fire that spread to the gas tank and caused a large explosion inside.

A wave of public sympathy for the Sri Lankan worker followed the incident, with many people blaming the fire on systematic failures and negligence on the part of the oil storage center rather than the foreign worker’s mistake.

A subsequent investigation by police found that only one of the ten air vents inside the oil tanks had flame arresters installed inside, despite an industrial safety law that mandates that such devices be affixed to all equipment containing flammable materials. Particularly alarming was the fact that a public servant is suspected of forging official documents to make it look like the station had complied with the standards.

The dried grass left nearby and damage to flame traps that allow passage of gas showed that the oil tanks had indeed been exposed to fire hazards, police said.

Investigators also found that monitoring at the facility was inadequate at the time the fire occurred. The facility had only four workers on the Sunday of the incident, and only one was monitoring surveillance cameras. At the time of the fire, however, this employee was supervising refueling at a different part of the facility. Police chose not to book any of these four workers for negligence, since there were not enough workers to properly deal with the fire.

Police said they will conduct a final consultation with seven fire safety and construction experts on Tuesday and release the final results of their probe this week.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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