November 1, 2022
SEOUL – As South Koreans mourn the death of 155 people in an unprecedented crowd crush at Seoul’s nightlife district Itaewon during the Halloween festivities, questions are being raised about poor crowd management and insufficient police deployment, which may have contributed to the disaster.
Some 10,000 people visited memorial sites set up all over the country to pay respects to the victims on Monday, most of them in their 20s and 30s.
Hundreds of revellers got stuck in an entangled pile last Saturday when crowds moving in opposite directions converged in a narrow downhill alley next to the iconic Hamilton Hotel, causing some to fall and trigger a domino effect.
Many of those who were caught at the bottom died of asphyxia or cardiac arrest.
The death toll, which includes 26 foreigners from Iran, China and Russia, is expected to rise as 30 people are seriously injured. Another 122 people sustained minor injuries.
Addressing concerns raised about lax crowd control, President Yoon Suk-yeol has ordered the government to come up with a crowd management system for similar events that draw huge crowds.
The President, who visited a memorial at Seoul Plaza on Monday, “feels an indescribable sadness and responsibility for the people’s lives and safety when he thinks of the victims and their families”, according to his spokesman.
Mr Yoon also stressed the importance of a thorough investigation into the cause of the accident and revealing the real cause of the tragedy, which he said will help the government to prepare a safety management system to prevent crowd accidents in future.
Itaewon is known to draw a surge of revellers over Halloween, Christmas, long weekends, and the annual Itaewon Global Village Festival.
Only the Global Village Festival is subject to safety measures for big crowds imposed by the government, as it is organised by the Yongsan District Office which oversees Itaewon. Roads are also closed to make way for performances and food and cultural stalls.
Safety measures for such festivals were reportedly strengthened in the wake of a pop concert stampede in southern city Sangju that killed 11 people and injured about 60 others in 2005.
But the rules do not apply to Halloween or Christmas parties where there is no central organiser. Crowd control is left to individual businesses, some of whom hire bouncers to keep queues in order.
“In the absence of an organiser, it is not easy to pre-emptively implement safety measures,” Mr Yoon’s spokesman said.
He added that there will be discussions on how officials can request for police cooperation on minimal safety measures for such events in the future.
The police have formed a 475-member special investigation team to “closely check the circumstances of the accident”, according to Mr Nam Gu-jun, chief of the National Office of Investigation.
The team has interviewed 44 eyewitnesses and secured footage from 52 surveillance cameras around the area where the deadly crush happened.
No criminal acts have been detected so far, Mr Nam said.
Responding to growing criticism that the police failed to prevent the accident, Mr Hong Ki-hyun, chief of the National Police Agency’s Public Order Management Bureau, said they predicted big crowds but “didn’t expect massive casualties from the gathering of so many people”.
Some critics have also accused the police of not deploying enough officers to Itaewon, but Mr Hong emphasised Saturday’s numbers were already higher than previous years.
A total of 137 officers were deployed, compared with the 90 who were dispatched from 2017 to 2019, but they were focused on cracking down on crime and managing traffic, not crowd control.
Mr Hong also said there are no police rules for crowd control at events without a central organiser, but they will come up with measures to determine when is it necessary to intervene when large crowds gather.
Itaewon was eerily quiet on Halloween day on Monday when The Straits Times visited. The main road was closed and police cordoned off the crowd crush alley, only allowing access to investigators and visitors such as Prime Minister Han Duck-soo.
Events have been cancelled and many shops in the area remain shut, with an apparel retailer putting up this notice: “We’re closing our store to help protect our people and community”.
A bakery owner told Yonhap news agency that his and many other stores will remain closed until Nov 5, when national mourning ends.
He also said he will provide free buns and coffee to police and other officials on duty in the area.
“We, the merchants in Itaewon, have been enormously shocked and feel responsible for the tragedy,” he said.