South Korea in mourning as questions raised over deadly Itaewon crowd crush in Seoul


South Korea was in mourning as an investigation opened into the deaths of more than 150 people, mostly young adults, when a huge Halloween party crowd surged into a narrow alley in a nightlife district in Seoul.

It remained unclear what led the crowd to head into the alley in the Itaewon area on Saturday night. Witnesses said people fell on each other “like dominoes”, and some victims were bleeding from their noses and mouths while being given CPR.

On Monday morning, people laid white chrysanthemums, drinks and candles at a small makeshift altar off an exit of the Itaewon subway station, a few steps away from the site of the crush. Another memorial for the victims was set up at Seoul City Hall Plaza, with others set up across the country.

South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who has declared a period of national mourning and designated Itaewon a disaster zone, visited a memorial altar near the city hall and paid his respects to victims.

Most shops and cafes nearby were closed, and police cordoned off the site of the incident, which was strewn with rubbish. Schools, kindergartens and companies around the country scrapped planned Halloween events. K-pop concerts and government briefings were also cancelled.

The South Korean prime minister, Han Duck-soo, has promised a thorough investigation and authorities said they were focused on reconstructing the chain of events leading up to the surge and were looking at whether anyone may have been responsible for triggering the crush.

“We are analysing CCTVs to find out the exact cause of the accident,” police chief investigator Nam Gu-jun told reporters. “We will continue questioning more witnesses, including nearby shop employees,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, dozens of crime scene investigators and forensics officers descended on to the rubbish-strewn alleys. which were eerily quiet with many shops and cafes closed.

One agent with the national forensic service team, in white overalls and a black ribbon of mourning pinned to his chest, operated a Leica 3D scanner, he said, “to capture the scene”.

Calls for accountability have grown in the press and online after witnesses reported seeing a relatively small number of police on the streets in relation to the size of the crowds.

As many as 100,000 people – mostly in their teens and 20s, many wearing Halloween costumes – had poured into Itaewon’s small, winding streets to reach the bars and clubs.

Itaewon is part of Yongsan, one of the Korean capital’s 25 districts. On 28 October, the district announced its plans for managing the Halloween celebrations in Itaewon, a gathering that attracts huge crowds but has no official organiser. The authority laid out measures including anti-Covid precautions, safety checks for bars and restaurants, rubbish management and anti-drug policies, but nothing on how to control the revellers who were expected to converge on the area.

Police said at a briefing on Monday they had deployed 137 officers to the event, pointing out that number was significantly higher than previous years. But local reports said most police deployed were focused on drug use and traffic control, rather than crowd control.

“This was a disaster that could have been controlled or prevented,” Lee Young-ju, a professor from the department of fire and disaster at the University of Seoul, told broadcaster YTN. “But this was not taken care of, with no one taking the responsibility in the first place.”

An editorial published in the Korea JoongAng Daily on Monday pointed to the lack of a central organiser as a contributing factor, but argued that, “the disaster could have been avoided if the police and fire authorities had thoroughly prepared for possible scenarios in advance”.

The editorial also urged people to stop sharing images and videos of victims online, and called on authorities to “find effective solutions to prevent such calamities, given the usual overcrowding at numerous festivals across the country”.

Online, claims also spread that police this year were not actively managing the crowd, which allowed too many people to congregate around the subway station and in the alleyway at the centre of the disaster.

“I’ve lived in Itaewon for 10 years and experienced Halloween every year but yesterday was by no means particularly crowded compared to previous years,” one Twitter user wrote. “Ultimately, I think the cause of the disaster was crowd control.”

Steve Blesi, an American whose son Steven died in Itaewon, voiced anger at authorities for allowing the crowds to get so big. “I see politicians out there grieving on Twitter,” he said. “It’s just, to me, publicity on their end. Whereas they should be working to try to ensure rules are in place to not allow this type of crowding to ever happen again.”

On Sunday, Seoul’s central police agency dismissed accusations that hundreds of police officers were redeployed for the president’s security after he recently relocated the presidential office and residence to Yongsan district, noting that his security force is unrelated to that of Yongsan district police.

Nearly two-thirds of those killed – 98 – were women, and 149 people were injured. More than 80% of the dead were in their 20s and 30s, and at least four were teenagers.

The ministry of the interior and safety said the death count could rise further because 33 of the injured people were in serious condition.

Witnesses said many people appeared not to realise the disaster that was unfolding steps away from them. Some clad in Halloween costumes continued to sing and dance nearby as others lay lifeless on the ground.

Ken Fallas, a Costa Rican architect who went to Itaewon with expat friends, used his smartphone to film video showing unconscious people being carried out from the alley as others shouted for help. He said the loud music made things more chaotic.

“When we just started to move forward, there was no way to go back,” Fallas said. “We didn’t hear anything because the music was really loud. Now, I think that was one of the main things that made this so complicated.”

More than 25 of the dead are foreigners from US, China, Australia, Russia, Iran and elsewhere.

The bodies of the dead were being kept at 42 hospitals in Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi province, according to Seoul City, which said it would instruct crematories to carry out more cremations each day as part of plans to support funeral proceedings.

The crowd surge was South Korea’s deadliest disaster since 2014, when 304 people, mostly high school students, died in a ferry sinking.

The sinking exposed lax safety rules and regulatory failures. It was partially blamed on excessive and poorly fastened cargo and a crew poorly trained for emergency situations. Saturday’s deaths will probably draw public scrutiny of what government officials have done to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.

Source: The Guardian