A sky lantern released by a construction worker caused the recent massive fire that erupted at a large oil storage facility in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, the Korean police concluded Tuesday.
Police requested an arrest warrant for the 27-year-old suspect, a Sri Lankan national, who they believe had been aware that oil storage tanks are located near the mountain where he released the lantern into the sky on Sunday morning.
Some Koreans, including lawyers, criticized the authorities for unfairly blaming the foreign-national, saying the operator of the facility, who did not establish an adequate safety system against fire, should be held responsible instead.
A picture from a lantern festival held in Daegu on May 19. (Yonhap)
“We believe that the suspect released the sky lantern, which is about 60 centimeters tall and 40 centimeters in width, at about 10:32 a.m. on Sunday,” said Jang Jong-ick, an officer from the Geyonggi Bukbu Provincial Police agency during a press conference Tuesday.
“According to our investigation, the suspect saw the lantern falling on the lawn of the oil storage facility, after it flew some 300 meters from him. He told us he tried to catch the lantern after he realized it was heading toward the oil tanks, but it flew away too fast and eventually landed on the lawn.”
The fire inside the lantern caused flames on the lawn, which later spread to the ventilation system of the oil tank, triggering an explosion and eventually a massive fire, authorities added.
According to Article 171 of the South Korean Criminal Code, a person who causes fire through “gross negligence” can be subject to up to three years in prison, or a fine of up to 20 million won ($17,635).
Jang Jong-ick (far left), an officer from the Geyonggi Bukbu Provincial Police agency, speaks during a press conference Tuesday. Another officer is holding a sky lantern that police believes has caused massive fire at an oil storage facility in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, Sunday. (Yonhap)
The suspect had found the lantern at a tunnel construction site where he worked. The previous day, a group of students and parents from an elementary school located some 800 meters away from the oil storage facility had released some 80 sky lanterns.
Some Koreans are questioning why and how a small flame on the lawn was able to cause such a massive fire at the facility. Some claim that the Sri Lankan suspect is being blamed unfairly.
Police confirmed that it took Daehan Oil Pipeline Corp., a private oil pipeline company that operates the oil storage facility, some 18 minutes to notice the fire inside the property, as the oil tanks did not have fire sensors attached to them.
“I don’t think the Sri Lankan did anything that deserves him to be arrested,” said Han An-young, a 27-year-old office worker in Seoul.
“It seems like he is being unfairly blamed for the fire. Purchasing and flying sky lanterns are not illegal in Korea. If anything, the operator of the oil storage facility should have had a better safety system against fire. If flying lanterns can be this dangerous, why is it legal to buy and play with them in the first place? ”
Fire fighters try to extinguish massive fire that erupted at a large oil storage facility in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, Sunday (Yonhap)
Minbyun, a social organization of politically progressive lawyers, is representing the suspect in the case.
According to the police, the suspect has been living in Korea since 2015 on an E-9 visa, which is issued to foreign migrant workers.
On the day of the accident, he went to a mountain with the lantern during a work break, the police said.
The fire, which caused some 4.3 billion won worth of damage, took firefighters some 17 hours to extinguish.
The blaze was so large that those outside Goyang, including residents in Seoul and Gimpo, could see thick, black smoke in the sky during the day.
Warnings were also issued on Sunday night, advising residents in Goyang and some Seoul districts to stay indoors and keep their windows closed as the fire was reported to be releasing toxic fumes.
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org