Gov’t tries to figure out how Itaewon tragedy happened
Police and government authorities are focusing on understanding the circumstances that led to the horrific Halloween crowd crush in Itaewon Saturday that killed at least 154 people, including a middle school student.
As the country reels from its worst disaster since the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, questions are being asked about how such an avoidable tragedy came to pass and who should be held accountable.
On Monday, police launched a joint investigation into the case but admitted they had failed to foresee the danger of the deadly overcrowding in the narrow alleyway behind and next to the Hamilton Hotel in Yongsan District, central Seoul.
“While it was foreseen that a large number of people would gather,” said Hong Ki-hyun, chief of the National Police Agency’s Public Order Management Bureau, in a press briefing Monday, “we weren’t able to predict that such large-scale casualties would occur due to the large crowd of people.”
Hong admitted there were no crowd control measures in place in or around the small alley in which most of the deaths occurred.
An estimated 100,000 people went to Itaewon for the first Halloween celebrations since major Covid-19 restrictions were lifted Saturday night. The area is a nightlife hotspot and was known to draw such large crowds on Halloween before the pandemic. The crush of people in the alleys behind the Hamilton Hotel led to tragedy shortly after 10 p.m. Saturday.
As of Monday morning, the death toll was 154, including 26 foreigners, according to the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, while 33 people remain in serious condition. Another 116 people had minor injuries.
All the identities of the dead had been confirmed and their family members contacted as of Monday, said the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.
Around two-thirds of the dead victims, or 103 people, were in their 20s. There were 98 women and 56 men killed.
There were 11 teenage deaths. This included one middle school and five high school students, all from Seoul, confirmed the Education Ministry.
Five other middle or high school students were injured, said the ministry. There were also three teachers killed from Seoul, Gyeonggi and Ulsan.
Police launched a 475-member special investigative team to analyze the accident Monday and are collecting and reviewing evidence, including eyewitness statements and CCTV footage of the area.
Police said that this year’s Halloween crowd was similar, or just slightly larger than previous years.
Hong said police on the scene didn’t detect any sudden surge in the crowd.
According to Hong, 137 police officers were dispatched to Itaewon on Saturday.
This was up from somewhere between 37 to 90 officers assigned from 2017 to 2019, before the pandemic, he said. Most of the officers were assigned to cracking down on crimes and managing traffic.
The Yongsan Police Precinct initially said that 200 officers were being assigned to patrol the area to prevent crimes such as illegal filming and drug use. Hong clarified that this number was the manpower dispatched over three days.
Hong also admitted there was no police protocol to handle situations where large crowds gather and when there isn’t a clear organizer, as in this case.
Critics point out that in such a situation, the district office or local government, in this case the Yongsan District and Seoul Metropolitan Government, and police could have implemented better safety precautions, especially since large crowds were expected.
There were reports of people raising concerns about overcrowding in the alleys the previous day. Itaewon has been a magnet for local and foreign crowds on special occasions for years and Halloween was already being celebrated on Friday.
Nam Gu-jun, chief of the National Office of Investigation under the National Police Agency, said that the special investigation team is working with the National Forensic Service to reenact the disaster and spoke with 44 witnesses and secured footage from 52 CCTVs. They are also reviewing clips of the incident uploaded on social media.
He said no acts subject to criminal charges had been detected thus far.
Nam also addressed various rumors circulating online.
Some witnesses online claimed that there were rumors of a celebrity spotting, which triggered some kind of stampede, while others alleged that some clubs and bars refused to let people in trying to escape the crush. Several others said that they heard someone call “push” from near the top of the alley where the deaths occurred.
Nam said that none of the allegations have been confirmed yet but that they are keeping open all possibilities, noting that witness testimonies vary.
“The exact cause of the crowd surge has not been confirmed yet,” he said.
On Sunday, Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min caused controversy with a remark downplaying the foreseeable nature of the situation, drawing criticism from some Democratic Party and People Power Party lawmakers.
“Compared to previous years, there was not a large enough crowd of people to be particularly concerned about, despite the Covid-19 [social distancing measures] being lifted,” Lee told reporters. “It was not a problem that could be solved by dispatching police or emergency response personnel in advance.”
The Halloween events held in Itaewon over the weekend are not defined as a “local festival” as stipulated by the Management of Disaster and Safety Act.
In March last year, the Interior Ministry published a guide for safe management for local governments in accordance with the law. Events with more than 1,000 spectators at any given moment were included, along with safety management guidelines for police and firefighters.
However, the guide didn’t apply to Halloween events in Itaewon because of the lack of an event organizer.
According to data submitted to the Seoul Metropolitan Government by the Seoul Metro Monday, a total of 161,598 people got on and off the subway at Itaewon Station and adjacent Noksapyeong Station Saturday.
This is more than double the average of 77,278 people boarding the subways daily in the past three years during Covid-19 restrictions, which were mostly lifted in April.
As this was the first Halloween since, a surge of visitors could easily have been anticipated, even according to the officials.
The Yongsan District Office posted on its website on Friday that it had held an emergency response meeting presided over by the deputy office chief regarding prioritizing Halloween safety. However, it is unclear what safety precaution measures came of it.
Yongsan District Office chief Park Hee-young closed his social media accounts Monday due to public backlash.
“Currently, police don’t have the legal or institutional authority to control the public in situations other than rallies or demonstrations,” a presidential official said Monday on Minister Lee’s remarks. “If there is a request from the organizer to supplement the safety management, the police can take a preemptive action.”
In a meeting on the Itaewon disaster on Monday, President Yoon Suk-yeol called for better crowd control measures, according to Lee Jae-myoung, deputy spokesman of the presidential office, in a briefing Monday afternoon.
“When I think of the people who died in the accident, and their families, I feel an indescribable sadness and a sense of responsibility as the president in charge of the life and safety of the people,” Yoon was quoted as saying by Lee, especially noting the young age of the victims.
“Above all, it is important to thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident, disclose it transparently, and based on this, come up with fundamental measures to prevent a similar accident from reoccurring,” added Yoon. “We need to prepare a safety management system to prevent crowd accidents.”
Yoon also expressed gratitude to the unsung heroes of the disaster, including ordinary people, medical workers, firefighters and police officers.
“It’s not easy to preemptively implement safety measures in the absence of an organizer,” said spokesman Lee.
However, he said that central government discussions are expected to focus on how local governments, even in the absence of an event organizer, can request cooperation with the police.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]