South Korea’s police chief looked contrite on Tuesday morning, solemnly bowing at a televised press conference, as he admitted he felt a “heavy responsibility” for the crush that has left at least 156 people dead.
Yoon Hee-keun, head of the Korean National Police, called crowd control measures at Seoul’s Itaewon area on Saturday night “inadequate.” The police assigned just 137 officers to the popular entertainment district in the South Korean capital, where 100,000 people had gathered to celebrate Halloween.
He promised to investigate what went wrong and “reveal the truth of the matter.”
The crowd surge trapped partygoers in one especially deadly crush down a narrow alleyway, as many enjoyed their first maskless night out since COVID restrictions were eased in late September. Women and people in their 20s make up the majority of the victims.
Yoon said that multiple emergency calls were made to the police warning about the massive crowd forming. Authorities said the first call to an emergency number about the unfolding situation came at 6.34 p.m., with 10 further calls made by 10 p.m. That was around the time when large numbers of people began flooding into the alleyway near the Hamilton Hotel, where a major crush of people occurred. Yoon said police are currently investigating if sufficient measures were taken to address these warnings.
Yoon’s comments are the first from an official acknowledging the police’s role in the disaster, coming in the face of public anger as authorities initially portrayed the tragedy as an unfortunate accident.
Park Hee-young, mayor of Yongsan District Office, said on Monday that while planning to welcome crowds to Itaewon for Halloween, they “did everything they could from the office.” Yoo Sang-bum, a politician with South Korea’s ruling People’s Power Party, also initially claimed no one was liable. “It’s impossible to ask for legal responsibility, as nobody was responsible,” he said in an interview on local radio on Tuesday.
“Everyone knew that it would be a busy time because it’s the first time after three years that we can take our masks off and there are minimal COVID restrictions.”
But the liability of Saturday’s tragedy is clear to partygoers like Zara Lily, a British national who was at the event with her South Korean boyfriend Yun Jinhyeong.
“The biggest problem was there was no crowd control,” she told VICE World News.
She and Yun arrived at 4 p.m, at which point Itaewon was already filled with partygoers. By 8 p.m it was “absolutely packed,” she said. At around 11 p.m that night, the pair found themselves trapped in a crowd leading to the sloped narrow alley where people were falling on top of one another.
“Everyone knew that it would be a busy time because it’s the first time after three years that we can take our masks off and there are minimal COVID restrictions. Everyone who was attending knew that it’s going to be crowded,” she said. “So why didn’t [authorities anticipate] that it would be crowded?”
Across the country, authorities have set up memorial altars to commemorate the victims as the country enters its week of national mourning. At a subway entrance near the Hamilton Hotel, flowers, bottles of alcohol, and other offerings line the ground, as the public pay their respects to the deceased. Now, the search is on for answers as to how this happened.
The role of deliberate pushing in the surge is one avenue of investigation for police. According to Lily, while thousands of people were jammed along the path, they heard men saying things like “We can push the crowd” and “Let’s go, let’s go.” On Tuesday, Yonhap revealed the Hamilton Hotel was also found to have illegally extended its terrace, making the narrow alleyway even narrower. However, the most widely cited factor in the crush—among survivors in Itaewon, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo and the police themselves—remains the shortcomings in police presence, crowd control and the response to initial reports of danger.
“I think it’s very commendable of them [the police] that they’re admitting their fault,” Lily said. “I’m very glad to see that they took the blame, rather than putting the blame on the people who were present at the Halloween event.”
This was not the first time that Itaewon has seen large crowds swarm to its bars for Halloween celebrations, but this year marked the resumption of festivities at full scale since the pandemic. In a press release from the Yongsan district police station, authorities warned of large crowds, urging the public to beware of crimes like molestation and theft. In hindsight, conspicuously missing from the release were crowd control measures.
According to Seoul transport authorities, pre-pandemic, there would be about 58,000 passengers alighting at Itaewon station on the Saturday afternoon of Halloween weekends. This year, the number hit 81,000, as people took advantage of recently relaxed COVID measures.
Amid claims by the public that there was a shortage of manpower to control the crowd that night due to protests elsewhere in the city, with various labor and political groups rallying in separate demonstrations. In response to reporters’ questions about such claims, Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min argued that the tragedy was not something that “could have been prevented by deploying more police or fire officers.” Meanwhile, Yongsan authorities said that the 137 officers dispatched to Itaewon were more than what the police did between 2017 and 2019, when 34 to 90 officers were mobilized.
But despite the increased numbers, those on the ground, including Lily, say they barely felt their presence.
“We didn’t see any crowd control services,” she said. “We were just all on our own.”
Additional reporting by Sowon Lee
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