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South Korea admits police crowd control was ‘inadequate’ before crush

Hours before the deadly incident, police received calls warning of dangerous crowd conditions

Yoon Hee-geun, South Korea's national police chief, bows during a news conference in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL — Several top South Korean officials apologized Tuesday for the response to the crowd crush in the Itaewon area in Seoul this weekend that left at least 156 dead. Hours before the crush, partygoers placed emergency calls that showed mounting desperation and included repeated warnings, according to logs released Tuesday.

South Korea’s police chief said the crowd control was “inadequate.” South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo pointed to a lack of a “crowd management system” as a cause of the accident and called for measures to address the issues. “The government is responsible for lives and safety of the people, and it is our absolute duty.”

Transcripts of 11 emergency call logs released by police Tuesday included pleas for emergency personnel to intervene and manage the crowd. One of the calls came four hours before the first deaths were reported.

“There are a lot of people going up and down this alley, I’m very nervous about it,” the caller said at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. “I think people might be crushed. I barely escaped, but there are too many people. I think you need to intervene.”

Independent investigators within the police are now determining whether the response to those calls was sufficient, said Yoon Hee-geun, the national police chief, in a briefing.

In the wake of the crowd crush, one of the deadliest incidents in South Korea in recent years, there is now scrutiny on efforts by police to handle such gatherings. Although there is heavy police presence at protests, festivals, concerts and other events where many people are expected, there was a significantly smaller law enforcement presence in Itaewon.

South Korea confronts the trauma of the Halloween crowd crush

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon apologized Tuesday at a tearful news conference, saying his city government will create measures to prevent similar tragedies, support families of victims and assist with their funerals.

“The Seoul city government will do its best to mobilize all its administrative power until all funeral procedures are completed and the bereaved families, the injured and all citizens who feel sorrow from this accident can return to their daily lives,” he said.

Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min also apologized Tuesday, after coming under fire for earlier remarks playing down the importance of police presence in preventing the crush. He said he didn’t “carefully look into the minds of the bereaved families who lost their precious family members” when he made the comments.

“I deeply apologize to the people that the recent accident occurred despite the state bearing infinite responsibility for the people’s safety,” Lee told a parliamentary session, bowing to express his apology.

About 100,000 people were expected each night in the Itaewon area over Halloween weekend. There were 137 local police officers dispatched to the neighborhood — about one for every 730 people — whose primary role was to focus on petty crime, drugs and sexual and physical abuse.

In addition, there were eight U.S. Forces Korea personnel on patrol in the Itaewon area, according to the U.S. military, which has a base nearby and provides “courtesy patrols” there.

The Yongsan district office’s countermeasures ahead of the event did not include crowd control efforts. 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.

Nonetheless, members of the public and businesses in Itaewon are questioning why law enforcement failed to anticipate the spike in attendance this year.

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.

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

Police, however, did not expect Halloween crowds to be significantly larger than in previous years and did not deploy additional personnel ahead of the celebrations, Lee, the interior minister, said at a briefing Sunday.

Long before the first deaths were reported, people were contacting the police and pleading with them to respond to the focal point of the crowds, where most of the fatalities later took place.

At 8:09 p.m., a caller gave detailed directions to where the crowd was gathering. “There are so many people here. … It’s crazy. People are getting hurt.”

At 9 p.m.: “There are too many people. There is about to be a major accident at any moment. Everyone is being pushed. You need to come control this crowd.”

At 9:51 p.m.: “There are so many people, I think there needs to be crowd control. … If possible, could you please hurry? … It feels very dangerous right now.”

At 10:11 p.m.: “Here, we’re about to be crushed. It is chaos … [audible screams]. In Itaewon, in the back road. In Itaewon, in the back road.”

Emergency personnel swarmed the alley by about 11 p.m., according to witness videos. South Korean media reported that because the area was so congested, it took the responders longer than expected to reach the site of the crush.

Three days before the crush, according to Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, businesses in the area asked the city to require subway trains to bypass the Itaewon station over the weekend, out of concern about the volume of people who frequently pour out in front of it. The site of the crush was just north of the station. The Seoul Transportation Corporation told Dong-A Ilbo that it did not receive such a request.

Saturday has been the most crowded night of the Halloween weekend in Itaewon. Seoul subway records show the Itaewon station saw a spike in traffic this year compared with Saturdays of Halloween weekends in prior years. About 130,000 people used the station on Saturday, up from 96,400 in 2019 and 102,200 in 2018, the data shows. In 2021, amid coronavirus restrictions, there were about 59,220.

About 30 to 90 officers were dispatched each year from 2017 through 2021, Hong Ki-hyun, chief of the National Police Agency’s Public Order Management Bureau, said during a Monday briefing.

In at least one instance in the past, law enforcement took steps to direct the crowd. In 2017, there was a police line in the area that directed partygoers to sidewalks to help them avoid auto traffic, Hong said.

’So many bodies’: Seoul witnesses recall Halloween night of true horror

“We will thoroughly investigate the adequacy of the overall on-site response, including the handling of the [emergency calls],” said Yoon, the national police chief. “We hope that this Itaewon accident will serve as an opportunity to comprehensively inspect and improve the safety system in our society as a whole.”

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