Emergency calls warned police of tragedy hours before
The police came under fire for ignoring numerous calls warning of dangerous crowd levels in Itaewon Saturday, hours ahead of the crush that claimed at least 156 lives.
According to transcripts released by the National Police Agency Tuesday, 11 calls were made to its 112 emergency hotline between 6:34 p.m. and 10:11 p.m. Saturday by people reporting overcrowding in the area.
Six calls specifically mentioned worries about being “crushed” in the crowd. One caller warned that “someone’s really going to die.”
They were all made from the alley in which the deaths occurred or near it.
Police told four of the callers that they would dispatch officers to the scene. But the police didn’t take any useful action at the scene.
The other seven callers were told that police would “follow-up” on the issue or that police had already been dispatched.
Around 130,000 people gathered in Itaewon, a nightlife area in Yongsan District central Seoul, for Halloween celebrations Saturday. The 112 calls reflect plenty of concern about the crowds well in advance of the deadly tragedy that unfolded at about 10:15 p.m.
As of Thursday, there were 156 deaths, including 26 foreigners, with victims mostly in their 20s.
The first call, according to police transcripts, was received at 6:34 p.m. from a person near a convenience store near the Hamilton Hotel, which the deadly alley ran past.
“It’s a narrow alley, but the crowds lined up for clubs, the people coming up from Itaewon Station and those coming out of the alley are all entangled, and someone could be crushed by mistake,” said this initial caller.
This caller asked police for “measures such as controlling the number of people entering” the alley.
Additional calls were made at 8:09, 8:33, 8:53, 9:00, 9:02, 9:07, 9:10, 9:51, 10:00 and 10:11 p.m.
“There’s just too many people here, we’re not moving,” said the caller at 8:09 p.m. “It’s chaos because people are pushing people, falling and getting hurt.”
“There are so many people here right now, and it’s just one step away from a major accident occurring because everyone’s pushing,” said the caller at 9 p.m. “Someone needs to come here and regulate the situation.”
This person explained the exact location several times and repeated that police officers “need to be dispatched right away,” stressing it was an emergency situation.
“It’s because of the Halloween events?” asked the officer and then once more asked for the location.
“Please do something about the alleyway,” said another caller at 9:02 p.m. “I really think someone’s going to die.”
A haunting call made at 10:11 p.m. captured the urgency just minutes before the disaster.
“I think we’re going to get crushed, everyone’s panicking!” said the last caller.
The police transcript describes that there was screaming in the background as the caller tried to explain the location as the “alleyway behind Itaewon.”
The responder replied, “Yes, police will be dispatched there.”
Police officers were only dispatched after the calls made at 6:34, 8:09, 9:00 and 9:02 p.m.
Only the call made at 9 p.m. was classified as Code 0 in a five-tier emergency response system requiring the fastest dispatch of police.
Seven other calls were categorized as Code 1 and the other three as Code 2.
The 112 emergency calls are classified from Code 0 to Code 4 under police regulations. Both Code 0 and Code 1 require police to go to the site as soon as possible. Code 2 is less urgent but still requires police to be dispatched.
After the police transcripts were released, politicians, lawmakers and ordinary people criticized the police for their inaction. If they heeded any of the calls and regulated the crowds in the area, the tragedy may not have occurred.
Of the 137 police officers dispatched to the scene Saturday, none had specific duties to maintain safety. They were focused on monitoring drug usage and other crimes.
Police even told reporters in a statement that they would be cracking down on drugs in the Itaewon area starting at 10 p.m. Saturday.
There were some 4,800 riot police mobilized in locations in downtown Seoul to control rallies taking place in the capital earlier Saturday.
Over 1,100 police officers were overseeing rallies near the Yongsan presidential office that day, just 1.5 kilometers away from the tragedy site. This meant there were plenty of experienced officers nearby to help regulate the situation if the right decisions and orders were made. However, they were dispersed Saturday evening at around 9 p.m. after the rallies ended.
On Tuesday, Yoon Hee-keun, commissioner general of the National Police Agency, apologized for the police’s inadequate response and admitted there had been warnings of an impending tragedy.
He said an independent investigation team within the National Police Agency will review the bungled police response.
On Wednesday, the special police investigation team raided eight places including the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, the Yongsan Police Station and the Yongsan District Office as part of its probe into the inadequate handling of the Itaewon disaster.
The other sites searched were the Seoul Metropolitan Fire & Disaster Headquarters, the Yongsan Fire Station, the Seoul Metro headquarters, Itaewon Station and Dasan Call Center.
Investigators will review whether the police officers in charge who received reports of the 11 phone calls prior to the disaster fulfilled their duties and whether the actions of the officers who received the reports and their superiors were correct.
The transcripts of the 112 calls show that the police did not take active measures, such as increasing the number of security personnel.
The investigation team is expected to probe the reasons why the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency and Yongsan Police Precinct didn’t take appropriate follow-up measures, such as disbanding the crowd, after the calls.
It may also look into allegations that the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency had refused the Yongsan Police Precinct’s request for reinforcement by mobilizing the riot police forces.
The district office, Itaewon Station and police are also accused of having failed to adopt safety measures in a joint meeting aimed at dealing with anticipated crowds for the Halloween celebrations held three days before the tragedy.
Later Wednesday, the National Police Agency removed from duties Lee Im-jae, the head of the Yongsan Police Station, over the bungled police response.
It said in a statement that it would be “difficult for him to perform normal duties” and that a successor would be announced soon.
President Yoon Suk-yeol expressed anger after being briefed on the 112 calls warning of tragedy in a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, according to a presidential official.
He ordered the matter to be “dealt with strictly in accordance with the law and principle.”
Prime Minister Han Duck-soo also warned that the government will hold accountable those responsible in a meeting on the Itaewon disaster Wednesday.
Minister of Justice Han Dong-hoon told reporters at the National Assembly on the same day that the issue “requires a strict investigation.”
Both the People Power Party (PPP) and rival Democratic Party (DP) criticized the police’s inadequate response and called for accountability.
Chung Jin-suk, the PPP interim leader, said during an emergency steering committee meeting that “corresponding responsibility” needs to be taken regarding the police’s handling of the 112 hotline calls.
“Four hours before the accident, there were already 112 calls requesting police to control the scene, over fears that they would be crushed,” said Chung. “It should be made clear why the judgment of the police who had been dispatched to the scene four times was wrong, and why sufficient on-site measures such as mobilizing nearby riot police were not taken.”
“The first and foremost duty of the government is to protect the lives and safety of the people,” Chung said. “Our party will take full responsibility for the accident that killed 156 people. We will not pass off our responsibilities anywhere.”
“After the national mourning period, a thorough investigation and seeking corresponding responsibility will be inevitable,” said PPP floor leader Joo Ho-young.
DP lawmakers are demanding Interior Minister Lee Sang-min and police chief Yoon Hee-keun step down.
“It was ultimately not an unpreventable disaster,” DP floor leader Park Hong-keun said in a supreme council meeting Wednesday after the release of the 112 hotline transcripts.
DP Rep. Jung Chung-rai called on the president to “immediately sack” Minister Lee and police chief Yoon.
Oh Young-hwan, a DP floor spokesman, said in a briefing Wednesday that there that while police released the transcripts of 11 calls to the 112 hotline, there were actually 79 calls from Itaewon during that four-hour time frame.
He called for the 68 other transcripts to be released and asked, “Who made the decision to select and disclose just a few? What are you afraid of?”
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]