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Arrest Made After S. Korean Fire

November 3, 1999

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ Police arrested a man Wednesday who had been missing since a weekend fire at his bar killed 55 people.

Officials also were checking allegations that some local officials regularly took bribes from the bar owner.

South Korea’s worst fire in 25 years gutted a three-story building Saturday in Inchon, a port city 30 miles west of Seoul. Most of the victims were teen-agers who died of smoke inhalation. Another 74 people were injured.

Police have asked a court to issue arrest warrants for eight people, including five renovation workers who ignored safety procedures in a basement karaoke lounge and three employees of the unlicensed bar on the second floor.

They were looking for three other people, including the owner of the karaoke lounge where the fire started.

Authorities want to charge the suspects with involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison.

Police were also investigating a local official who falsely reported long before the tragedy that the bar had been closed.

The Hankyoreh Shinmun newspaper quoted several unidentified nightspot operators in the area as saying that they often paid bribes and kickbacks to police and other officials to stay open.

``We’re investigating all suspicions raised,″ said a police investigator who gave only his surname, Kim.

Investigators believe a worker in the karaoke lounge triggered the blaze by inadvertently breaking an incandescent lamp and showering sparks onto paint thinner on the floor. The flames spread quickly, trapping dozens of people in the bar, where teen-agers were drinking illegally.

Police said the building was 20 years old and lacked basic fire prevention facilities such as sprinklers and fire alarms. The only exit from the bar was a stairway barely three feet wide. Yet authorities say the building had passed fire safety checks, the latest on June 19.

Corruption involving government officials has often been uncovered in fires and other disasters in South Korea.

Sixteen people, including five local government officials, were arrested in June in connection with a summer camp fire that killed 19 kindergarten children and four adults. The five officials were charged with taking bribes in exchange for issuing a license to the camp, which lacked safety standards.

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