Nine foreigners killed in fire at immigration detention facility

Posted on : 2007-02-11 17:54 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST

At least nine foreigners were killed and 18 others injured in a pre-dawn fire that engulfed an immigration detention center in southern South Korea on Sunday, police said.

The foreigners, mostly Chinese, had been detained in the facility in Yeosu, about 450km south of Seoul, after they were caught trying to get into South Korea or illegally staying here, police officers said.

The deceased included five Chinese, one Uzbek and three others whose nationalities were not immediately identified, they said.

Most of them are believed to have been killed by smoke inhalation, police said, adding the death toll is expected to increase as many of the injured are in critical condition.

An investigation is underway to determine the exact cause of the fire, but detention center officials said a short circuit from a television set on the third floor is believed to be the cause of the blaze.

Police are also looking at the possibility of arson, as closed circuit television (CCTV) footage shows a foreign detainee covering a CCTV camera on the floor with wet toilet paper just before the fire broke out.

"The detainee was stopped by center officials from putting wet toilet paper on a CCTV camera several times the previous day," said Kim Jang-whan, head of the police station in Yeosu. "He covered a CCTV camera about five to eight minutes before the fire occurred."

The detainee was identified as a 39-year-old Chinese who uses an alias, "Kim Myung-sik," but why he had been held in the facility was not immediately available, police officers said.

Nine South Korean officials and security guards were at the center, but they struggled to extinguish the fire, as the foreigners were in iron-barred cells, immigration officials said.

"They failed to reach the cells quickly due to the barred windows," said Lee Bok-nam, head of the immigration office in Yeosu.

Twenty-eight other foreigners in custody at the facility were rescued by firemen later and are safe, Lee said.

He added his office will soon contact family members of those killed and injured to discuss compensation measures.

Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook ordered a thorough probe into the case after expressing regret over the deaths of the foreigners, her office said.

"Han instructed Justice Minister Kim Sung-ho to examine detention centers for illegal foreign workers and work out measures to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents," it said.

The fire broke out around 4 a.m. and was extinguished about one hour later after 27 fire trucks and 120 firemen were dispatched to the scene.

Yeousu, South Korea, Feb. 11 (Yonhap News)