Yongsan police chief wasn’t where he said he was on tragic night
Lee Im-jae, chief of the Yongsan Police Station on the night of the deadly Itaewon crowd crush, lied about his whereabouts that night, according to police investigations.
The Ministry of the Interior and Safety and police initially said Lee arrived at the scene at 10:17 p.m. on Oct. 29, minutes after the accident occurred, and taken charge immediately.
Around 130,000 people gathered in Itaewon for early Halloween celebrations that day. Overcrowding in the alleys behind and next to the Hamilton Hotel in Yongsan District, central Seoul led to the crowd crush at around 10:15 p.m. which led to 156 deaths.
However, Lee actually got there 48 minutes later, at 11:05 p.m.
The special police investigation team revealed on Saturday that Lee, after overseeing a rally near the Yongsan presidential office earlier that day that ended around 8:30 p.m., arrived at a restaurant for dinner in the neighborhood with officers at 9:24 p.m. He was said to have received a report about the crowd situation around 9:30 p.m. and departed by car to Itaewon at 9:47 p.m. He was said to have been sober.
The police car approached Noksapyeong Station, just 800 meters, or half a mile, from the site of the incident, around 9:57 p.m., but was unable to get through due to traffic. The distance would have been around a 10-minute walk. However, Lee insisted on going by car.
The car made a detour and Lee arrived at the Itaewon Antique Furniture Street some 200 meters away from the Itaewon police station and finally got out of the car at around 10:55 p.m.
He eventually reached Itaewon police station on foot at 11:05 p.m.
This was after dozens of fatalities had occurred. Lee was said to have made orders from the station’s rooftop.
The station is 150 meters away the site of the tragedy, but the alley where the deaths occurred is not in view from the rooftop.
Lee’s route that night was confirmed through his own testimony, witnesses and CCTV footage.
CCTV footage released by the media Sunday showed Lee slowly walking up Itaewon Antique Furniture Street, hands behind his back, at 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 29.
This contradicted the Yongsan Police Station’s initial report that Lee had taken command at the scene around 10:20 p.m.
The investigation team accused him of arriving late on the scene, neglecting command and management duties and delaying reports to superiors. Lee is accused of falsifying documents to make it seem like he was on the scene earlier than he was.
Lee was removed from his duties last Wednesday.
Lee was not the only one whose whereabouts were fuzzy on the night of the tragedy.
As the police response to the tragedy is examined, serious flaws are being revealed in the reporting system up the chain of command.
Ryu Mi-jin, a situation monitoring officer at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency who was on duty the night of the tragedy, was missing from the 112 situation room at the time of the incident and didn’t show up for some 85 minutes.
The investigation team said Friday she was in her office instead of monitoring and managing the situation from the Emergency Dispatching and Operations Command Center.
She was said to have finally arrived at the situation room at 11:39 p.m.
According to police, the first 112 emergency hot line call warning of the possibility of being crushed came earlier that evening at 6:34 p.m., the first in a series of similar reports. Police finally issued a Code 0 warning at 8:53 p.m. Code 0 in a five-tier emergency response system requires the fastest dispatch of police.
By 11 p.m., some 98 calls from people reporting similar concerns were made.
According to the 112 emergency response guidelines, Code 0 cases require real-time responses. And large-scale disasters with multiple reports require the monitoring officer in charge, which would have been Ryu, to report to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency chief.
Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency Commissioner General Kim Kwang-ho was briefed on the situation by Lee at 11:36 p.m. and began making his way to the scene. He was at home in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, after overseeing rallies in Gwanghwamun earlier that day. Kim was said to have missed three calls by Lee several minutes earlier. He arrived in Itaewon at 12:25 a.m.
According to police guidelines, a first response and reporting up the chain of command should have happened within 35 minutes, which did not happen that night.
Yoon Hee-keun, commissioner general of the National Police Agency (NPA) who was said to have received an initial report at 12:14 a.m. on Oct. 30, missed earlier reports of the disaster because he had fallen asleep during a private camping trip.
After hiking with friends, he fell asleep at around 11 p.m. at a camping site in Jecheon, North Chungcheong, without knowledge of the tragedy unfolding in Seoul.
Yoon received a first text message from an NPA official about an accident with fatalities at 11:32 p.m., according to his smartphone records, according to the NPA Friday.
After Yoon didn’t respond to the next, an NPA official called him 20 minutes later at 11:52 p.m., but again, the police chief didn’t respond. He finally received the phone call around two hours after the incident at 12:14 a.m. the next day, after the whole country had found out about the disaster.
He finally gave orders over the phone to Seoul police chief Kim, calling for an all-out response to the disaster.
Yoon finally presided over an emergency response meeting at the NPA at 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 30. That’s how long it took him to get from Jecheon to Seoul.
Such botched communications up the command chain explains why it took so long to mobilize police forces, especially since there had been some 4,800 riot police in downtown Seoul overseeing rallies throughout the day.
Riot police first arrived at the scene of the disaster at 11:40 p.m., or 85 minutes after the incident, according to data submitted by the Seoul police agency to Democratic Party Rep. Lee Sung-man Sunday.
A total of five police squads under the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency who had been monitoring rallies in the capital earlier that evening were dispatched to the scene. The Yongsan Police Precinct requested back-up at 11:17 p.m. and the first squad arrived at 11:40 p.m. The other four squads arrived between 11:50 p.m. and 1:33 p.m.
According to this data, eight units of conscripted policemen were also dispatched to the scene at 12:11 a.m. on Oct. 30 and arrived from 12:50 a.m. to 1:12 a.m., well after the accident.
Ryu also was removed from her duties. The special investigation team is investigating possible negligence that night by both Ryu and Lee.
Police officials aren’t the only authority figures under fire.
Park Hee-young, head of the Yongsan District Office, made a trip to her hometown of Uiryeong County in South Gyeongsang for a festival on the day of the tragedy and returned to Seoul at around 8 p.m.
She reportedly passed Quy Nhon Street in Itaewon, which is about 130 meters from the site of the disaster, at 8:20 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. that evening, well after reports of the overcrowding had been made to the police, but didn’t take any action.
Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min has likewise received flak for not knowing what was going on until 11:20 p.m. on Oct. 29.
The president was notified of the situation at 11:01 p.m. and Lee reportedly was briefed by Yoon.
As of Friday, the National Police Agency’s special investigation team questioned 85 witnesses, victims and nearby store keepers and reviewed 141 pieces of CCTV footage. It is working with the National Forensic Service to recreate the incident on Oct. 29 through 3D simulation.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]