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Seoul crowd crush shows gaps in Korean safety rules, experts say

A South Korean flag lies on the ground at the site of the crowd crush in Itaewon, South Korea, on Sunday. (Jean Chung for The Washington Post)
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SEOUL — Two days before tens of thousands of partygoers gathered for the wildly popular Halloween celebrations in Itaewon, the surrounding Yongsan district unveiled its safety countermeasures for the expected celebrations. They addressed coronavirus prevention, street cleanliness, restaurant safety inspections and crackdowns on potential use of drugs.

Missing from the district’s plans were preparations to manage the anticipated daily crowd of about 100,000 — or the potential for such crowds on narrow streets and alleys to lead to a suffocating crush. But that’s what happened Saturday, killing more than 150 and injuring at least 82, in one of the nation’s deadliest incidents in recent years.

The oversight highlighted limitations in the nation’s policies governing mass gatherings in public places, experts say. Although detailed safety protocols are required for official events, such as festivals, the same disaster prevention methods do not apply to public spaces where large crowds are expected to gather informally, leading to ambiguous safety protocols and no clear agency being in charge, they said.

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Seoul Halloween tragedy
At least 158 people were killed in a crowd crush during Halloween celebrations in the streets and narrow alleys of the Itaewon area of Seoul on the night of Oct. 29. The tragedy has prompted debate over the role of national and local agencies and who should be accountable. South Korea’s police chief said the crowd control was “inadequate.”
Crowd crush
A crowd crush or surge happens when people are packed together in a confined space and there’s movement such as pushing that causes the crowd to fall over. (It’s different from a stampede). See photos and videos showing how the crush happened in Itaewon, and read accounts from those who were there.
The victims
Officials said they have identified all of the victims and mourners have left white flowers and handwritten notes. The victims include 56 men and 102 women, and most were in their 20s and 30s. At least 26 foreign nationals were among the dead.


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The exact cause of the crowd surge in a narrow alley — where so many people were jammed together that some could not move their limbs — is under investigation. The tragedy has prompted debate over the role of national and local agencies and who should be held accountable.

“Even if there is no event organizer, if a large number of people are expected to participate as they were for this event, it seems necessary for relevant institutions to take preemptive measures to strengthen their prevention efforts based on” the potential risk for disaster, said Kim Dae-jin, a professor in safety engineering and disaster mitigation studies at Woosuk University in North Jeolla province.

The Halloween crush in Seoul's Itaewon district killed more than 150 people and injured dozens. South Korea declared a period of national mourning on Oct. 30. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post, Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images/The Washington Post)

The Halloween festivities in Itaewon, Seoul’s foreigner-friendly district popular among expats and younger Koreans, have grown increasingly popular over the past decade. This year was the first Halloween since the start of the coronavirus pandemic that didn’t include social distancing or outdoor masking restrictions, drawing even more enthusiastic crowds.

Live updates on the tragedy in Seoul

It was not clear Sunday how many people turned out on Saturday night. Police did not expect Halloween crowds to be significantly larger than in previous years and did not deploy additional personnel ahead of the celebrations, South Korea’s minister of interior and safety, Lee Sang-min, said at a briefing Sunday.

More than 200 police officers were dispatched to the area throughout the weekend — about one officer for every 500 people estimated to have been there Saturday night — with a focus on targeting sexual and physical abuse and potential drug use.

On Saturday, police forces were focused on monitoring and controlling crowds at large-scale protests in other areas of Seoul, Lee said. A heavy police presence is common at mass protests where violence may break out.

Korea’s national police force has jurisdiction over Itaewon. The U.S. military provides “courtesy patrols” for the area, which is near a U.S. military base, said Wes Hayes, spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea. U.S. military police responded alongside Korean officers and assisted with first aid and crowd control, Hayes said.

Seoul and national police officials have set up an investigative team to look into whether proper safety protocols were followed. Political leaders from both parties called on police to promptly identify the cause of the accident, including potential issues with crowd control, according to Yonhap News.

In 2021, the South Korean Ministry of Interior and Safety released a disaster and safety management manual to help oversee protocols at large events after a review of previous tragedies in Korea and other countries. A 2017 government study, for instance, found insufficient safety measures led to crowd crushing or stampedes at more than a dozen concerts, festivals and sporting events. The report recommended strict requirements for events with more than 1,000 held at “multiuse facilities.”

Witnesses reported a dense crowd, a chaotic scene

“Massive public gatherings by ordinary citizens may have been in the government’s blind spot because we have not had experiences with such accidents in the past,” said Jeong Ho-jo, a disaster management expert and the chief executive of Safe School, a Seoul-based firm that provides safety trainings throughout the country.

“If responsibility and authority are ambiguous, there is a high probability that no one will do it,” Jeong said.

Jeong said South Korea’s disaster response needs to leverage support from businesses in the area, community leaders and media outlets to raise awareness. In addition, Koreans in their 20s have not been exposed regularly to safety trainings on how to conduct themselves in potentially dangerous situations, he said.

Although current students undergo safety training in school after the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking that killed over 300, people in their 20s and 30s — like so many of the victims in Itaewon — have been left to fend for themselves.

Visual reconstruction: How and where the tragedy happened

The crowds during the first night of Halloween celebrations on Friday provided an ominous preview of the disaster the next night. Video footage from the alley Friday night showed that people had packed in tightly, though not as much as on Saturday. Earlier on Saturday evening, some people who realized how crowded the area was becoming left early, according to witness accounts.

Many people tried to escape the crowd surge in the alley by trying to enter clubs or other businesses along the street. But some turned them away, according to witness accounts in South Korean media.

Here’s what causes crowd surges like the deadly one in Seoul

The alley, on a hill, filled up with people Saturday night, according to news reports — though it’s unclear exactly how long it took. It was so packed that when people at the top of the hill fell, it created a cascade. Many people toward the bottom of the hill chanted, “Stop pushing, stop pushing,” according to witnesses interviewed in South Korean media.

“Accidents are not caused by a single cause, but should be divided into policy causes, administrative causes, indirect causes and direct causes,” Jeong said. “If even one part had worked properly, it would not have led to this disaster.”

Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo; Grace Moon, Kelly Kasulis Cho and Julie Yoon in Seoul; and Samuel Oakford in New York contributed to this report.