Seoul’s Halloween crush: Families identify lost items as South Korean police admit mistakes
Seoul, South Korea
At a cave gymnasium in Seoul on Tuesday, grieving families examined the neat rows of belongings left at the site of a deadly street stampede in Itaewon.
Shoes, bags, glasses, notebooks, wallets, card holders and colorful hats were laid out on makeshift tables and exercise mats along the polished floor – waiting to be claimed by the next of kin 156 victims killed in a stampede on Saturday evening.
“Found it. I think this is the one,” said one woman, recognizing the black coat, hugging him as she cried.
A middle-aged woman, who had arrived with her husband, collapsed on the floor in tears after discovering a missing pair of knee-high boots. It was among the rows of black boots, heels and sneakers. In many cases there was only one shoe.
Another younger woman, wearing a cast on her left arm, entered the gymnasium to find her lost shoe. The woman, who did not want to be named, said she was outside a bar in an alley when the crush happened.
Stuck in the crowd, she said she passed out from suffocation “to the point where I thought I was dead, but a stranger was shouting at me to wake up”. Her arm was badly bruised during the incident, and after she regained consciousness, the woman said she just held on until the crowd calmed down and she could not be rescued.
Family members filed into the gymnasium, one at a time and in small groups, escorted by officials who hurriedly put on white gloves and led them to tables, so they could inspect and take possession of the carefully arranged possessions.
South Korea is in deep mourning for the 156 people killed, including 26 foreigners, in Saturday night’s stampede when as many as 100,000 people crowded the narrow streets of Itaewon to celebrate Halloween.
Officials had expected a large crowd due to the area’s popularity for Halloween parties in the pre-Covid years, but police admitted they were not prepared for this year’s crowds.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Yoon Hee-keun, head of the National Police Agency, bowed deeply at the start of a press conference, acknowledging for the first time the lapses of police in the capital that night.
Yoon said officers did not adequately respond to emergency calls that flooded the police call center before the disaster.
“The calls were related to emergencies that spoke of the danger and urgency of the situation that large crowds had gathered before the accident happened,” Yoon said. “However, we believe that the police response to calls to 112 (the emergency telephone number) was inadequate.”
South Korean police received at least 11 calls from people in Itaewon with concerns about a possible crush in the four hours before the incident on Saturday night, according to records provided to CNN by the National Police Agency.
The first call came in at 6:34 p.m. Saturday from a location near the Hamilton Hotel, which borders the alley where the deadly wave occurred, records show.
“People are going up and down the alley now, but it looks really dangerous. People can’t get down, but people keep coming up (the alley), so I’m afraid people might get crushed,” said one caller, according to the minutes.
“I managed to get out, but it’s crowded. I think you should control this. No one controls (the crowd). I think the cops should stand here and move some people so others can go through the alley. People can’t even pass, but there are more people pouring in,” added the interlocutor.
Then at 20:09, another person in Itaewon reported that there were so many people in the area that they were falling over and getting hurt. The caller requested traffic control, records show.
The deadly stampede happened shortly after 10 p.m
On Monday, Oh Seung-jin, director of the agency’s violent crime investigation division, said about 137 people were deployed to Itaewon that night, compared with about 30 to 90 personnel in previous years before the pandemic.
“For this year’s Halloween festival, as many people were expected to gather in Itaewon, I understand that it was prepared by deploying more police than other years,” Oh said.
However, the police at the scene were tasked with cracking down on illegal activities such as drug taking and sexual assault in the area “rather than policing the scene,” Oh said.
On Tuesday, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said a “lack of institutional knowledge and attention to crowd management” was partly to blame for the crowd’s sympathy.
“One of the reasons was the lack of deep institutional knowledge and attention to crowd management. However, the police are investigating,” Han said.
“Even if more police were deployed (at the site), there seems to have been some restraint in the situation because we don’t have a crowd control system, but we will have to wait for the police investigation to find out the cause,” he added.
A CNN reporter returns to the narrow alley of Itaewon one day after the Halloween disaster. You see how it is
At a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol called for the need to establish a system to prevent similar tragedies.
“Apart from the side streets where this big disaster happened, (we) have to establish security measures in stadiums, playgrounds, etc. where crowds gather,” he said, adding that the government will hold a national security system inspection meeting with relevant ministers and experts soon.
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