The surveillance has highlighted the limits of national policies governing mass gatherings in public places, experts say. Although detailed security protocols are required for official events, such as festivals, the same disaster prevention methods do not apply to public spaces where large crowds are expected to gather informally, making the protocols ambiguous security arrangements with no clear agency in charge, they said.
The exact cause of the influx of crowds into a narrow alley – where so many people were crammed together that some could not move their limbs – is under investigation. The tragedy has sparked a debate about the role of national and local agencies and who should be held accountable.
“Even if there is no event organizer, if a large number of people are expected as they have been for this event, it seems necessary that the institutions concerned take preventive measures to strengthen their efforts. based on” potential disaster risk,” said Kim Dae-jin, a professor of safety engineering and disaster mitigation studies at Woosuk University in North Jeolla Province.
Halloween festivities in Itaewon, Seoul’s foreign-friendly neighborhood popular among expats and young Koreans, have become increasingly popular over the past decade. This year was the first Halloween since the start of the coronavirus pandemic that did not include social distancing restrictions or outdoor masking, drawing even more enthusiastic crowds.
It was unclear on Sunday how many people turned up Saturday night. Police did not expect Halloween crowds to be much larger than in previous years and did not deploy additional personnel ahead of the celebrations, South Korea’s interior and security minister said. Security, Lee Sang-min, during a briefing on Sunday.
More than 200 police were sent to the region throughout the weekend – about one officer for every 500 people estimated to have been there on Saturday night – with a focus on targeting sexual and physical abuse and potential drug use.
On Saturday, police forces focused on monitoring and controlling crowds during large-scale protests in other parts of Seoul, Lee said. A heavy police presence is common at mass protests where violence can erupt.
The Korean National Police has jurisdiction over Itaewon. The U.S. military is providing “courtesy patrols” for the area, which is near a U.S. military base, said Wes Hayes, spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea. US military police responded alongside Korean officers and assisted with first aid and crowd control, Hayes said.
Seoul and national police officials set up an investigation team to check whether proper security protocols were followed. Political leaders from both parties called on police to quickly identify the cause of the crash, including potential crowd control issues, according to Yonhap News.
In 2021, South Korea’s Ministry of Interior and Security released a Disaster and Security Management Handbook to help oversee protocols at major events after a review of previous tragedies in Korea and other countries. other countries. A 2017 government study, for example, found that insufficient security measures led to crowd crushing or jostling at more than a dozen concerts, festivals, and sporting events. The report recommended strict requirements for events with more than 1,000 people held in “multipurpose facilities”.
“Massive public gatherings of ordinary citizens may have been in the government’s blind spot because we have never had such accidents in the past,” said disaster management expert and director Jeong Ho-jo. General of Safe School, a Seoul-based company. which provides safety training throughout the country.
“If responsibility and authority are ambiguous, there’s a high probability that no one will,” Jeong said.
Jeong said South Korea’s disaster response must leverage support from businesses in the region, community leaders and the media to raise awareness. Additionally, Koreans in their twenties haven’t been exposed to regular safety training on how to behave in potentially dangerous situations, he said.
Although current students are undergoing in-school safety training after the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry which killed more than 300 people, people in their 20s and 30s – like so many victims in Itaewon – were left to fend for themselves.
Crowds on the first night of Halloween celebrations on Friday gave an ominous glimpse of the following night’s disaster. Video footage from the alley on Friday night showed people had packed in, but not as tightly as Saturday. Earlier on Saturday evening, some people who realized how congested the area was getting left early, according to reports.
Many people tried to escape the crowds in the alley by trying to enter clubs or other businesses along the street. But some turned them away, according to reports in South Korean media.
The alley, on a hill, filled with people on Saturday evening, according to the media – although it is not clear how long it took. It was so crowded that when people fell on top of the hill it created a waterfall. Many people down the hill chanted, “Stop pushing, stop pushing,” according to witnesses interviewed by South Korean media.
“Accidents are not caused by a single cause, but should be divided into political causes, administrative causes, indirect causes and direct causes,” Jeong said. “If even one part had worked properly, it wouldn’t have led to this disaster.”
Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo; Grace Moon, Kelly Kasulis Cho and Julie Yoon in Seoul; and Samuel Oakford in New York contributed to this report.