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Stop making scapegoat out of first responders, firefighters cry foul

Gloomy Firefighters’ Day for Yongsan Fire Station amid blames for Itaewon tragedy

Firefighters deployed to the scene of the Oct. 29 Itaewon tragedy on Wednesday cried foul over the police’s ongoing investigation on their response, claiming that the government is placing the blame on the ones who worked the hardest.

During Wednesday’s meeting with opposition leader Lee Jae-myung, held on National Firefighters’ Day, members of the Yongsan Fire Station claimed that their chief, Choi Seong-beom, who was booked by police for negligence, was the first among those in responsible positions to arrive at the scene.

Choi, who was also present at the meeting, is among the six figures booked by police so far in relation to the Oct. 29 crowd crush. Investigations have also opened into now-dismissed Yongsang Police Station chief Lee Im-jae and Ryu Mi-jin, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s situation monitoring officer on the night.

Yongsan Fire Station Chief Choi seong-beom speaks during a briefing of Itaewon tragedy at the scene on Oct.30. (Yonhap)
Yongsan Fire Station Chief Choi seong-beom speaks during a briefing of Itaewon tragedy at the scene on Oct.30. (Yonhap)

But the opening of an investigation into Choi sparked public furor, as it was revealed that he and his team were the first to arrive on the scene. Choi was effectively the control tower of the rescue operation while other heads of related organizations -- including the police -- were absent. Choi arrived at the scene at 10:28 p.m. on the night, 13 minutes after the first report was made to the 119 emergency rescue center.

“We worked so hard at the scene, and the chief arrived there before anyone else and remained there longer than anyone else,” Kim Jin-cheol, the head of the administrative team at the Yongsan Fire Station tearfully said in the meeting with Lee. “We did all we could, and there’s so much unfairness. Please help.”

Lee Eun-ju, head of the rescue operations team at the station, said that all members of the Yongsan Station worked tirelessly to save as many lives as possible, raising concern that they may fall victim to the blame game. “We did not walk a single step, but kept running (at the scene). I’m afraid our efforts would be disregarded.”

A member of the Yongsan Fire Stations speaks during a meeting with the main opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung at Yongsan Fire Station in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
A member of the Yongsan Fire Stations speaks during a meeting with the main opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung at Yongsan Fire Station in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Accusations against Choi, who was off-duty on the day of the tragedy, included negligence of duty, on the ground that he was tardy to issue a second-stage response order which would have helped mobilizing more resources quickly.

Radio messages released to the media on Wednesday shows that Choi was the only one giving instructions during the rescue operation, such as repeatedly requesting for police backup and ordering additional dispatch of firefighters.

Also on Wednesday, a union of Korean firefighters released a statement urging the government to stop making a scapegoat out of the firefighters.

"No firefighter can hold their heads up in light of this tragedy, but holding (Choi) responsible is like making the 70,000 firefighters a scapegoat," it said.

"The Seoul mayor, the head of Yongsan-gu District Office, nor the head of Yonsan Police Station were present at the (Itaewon) scene, yet (Choi) did his best on not only the rescue operation, but also to prevent further tragedy. We cannot help but ask if these qualify as negligence of duty."



By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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