‘Man-made disaster’: Officials criticized for Seoul deaths

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Seoul police have assigned 137 officers to handle a Halloween crowd expected to top 100,000 over the weekend — a decision that has come under fire after more than 150 people died when the crowd swelled.

By comparison, nearly 7,000 police were sent to another part of the South Korean capital on Saturday to monitor the protest duels that drew tens of thousands but still fewer than those who flocked to the popular Itaewon nightlife district the same night. Even the task force set up to investigate why the crowd grew, with 475 members, is three times the size of the detail tasked with crowd control.

As South Korea mourns, officials face tough questions about preparations for the celebrations and demands for accountability in the wake of the country’s worst disaster in nearly a decade.

The national government insisted there was no way to predict the crowd would get out of control.

Experts disagree. The deployment of so few police officers, they said, showed officials were ill-prepared despite knowing in advance there would be a huge gathering after the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in recent months.

In addition to assigning more personnel, police and officials in the Yongsan district, which governs Itaewon, should have banned cars from certain streets and taken other measures to reduce overcrowding on narrow lanes like the one where the incidents occurred. deaths, experts said.

Instead, the 137 police officers in Itaewon were tasked with monitoring crime, with a particular focus on drug use, meaning for all practical purposes “nobody was looking after pedestrian safety,” said Kong Ha-Song, a disaster prevention professor. in South Korea. Woosuk University.

The deaths should be seen as a “man-made disaster,” said Lee Changmu, a professor of urban planning at Seoul’s Hanyang University.

The authorities have received similar criticism in the national media and on social networks. The headline of a lead article in the Hankyoreh newspaper on Sunday described the tragedy as “very avoidable”. The newspaper said its reports showed a pedestrian was beaten by a crowd in Itaewon a day before the Halloween festivities – although no one was injured.

Saturday’s crowd surge occurred on a downhill alley that runs between a dense row of storefronts and the landmark Hamilton Hotel. The path was blocked by a huge crowd of spectators before some of them fell and toppled over “like dominoes”, according to witnesses.

Emergency workers were so overwhelmed by the number of people lying motionless on the ground that they asked pedestrians to help them with CPR. But Choi Sukjae, an emergency medicine expert and chief spokesman for the Korea Emergency Medicine Association, said CPR, which should ideally be administered within minutes, would not make much difference in many cases, given that paramedics were delayed in getting to the point why the area was so crowded.

Kong, the disaster prevention professor, said more police and government officials should have been called in to monitor potential bottlenecks. He suggested that the crash might have been prevented if authorities had imposed one-way pedestrian lanes, barred entry to some narrow paths and temporarily closed Itaewon subway station to prevent too many people moving in the same direction.

Officials could also have temporarily closed Itaewon’s main road to cars, as they did during the annual Itaewon Global Village Festival earlier in October, giving people more room to spread out, Kong said.

Lee, the urban planning professor, criticized Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min, who claimed, without elaborating, that having more police and fire personnel on the ground would not have prevented the tragedy.

When asked about the number of officers assigned, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Service said the 137 was still more than it had deployed in 2020 and 2021, excluding units specifically assigned to virus control measures. Police and government officials acknowledged that this year’s crowd was larger – but it was unclear by how much.

Kong added that the lack of a central organizer on Saturday – when young people flock to bars and nightclubs to celebrate Halloween but no specific event is promoted – may have contributed to the tragedy.

“Our country usually does a good job of following the manual and maintaining control of the public at events where there is a specific organizer,” he said. “But officials are often unsure what to do or even uninterested in events that are not created by a particular organizer … although it is those events that usually require the most careful monitoring.”

Hong Ki-hyeon, a senior official of the national police service, acknowledged this problem during a press conference on Monday, saying the police have no established way of dealing with such gatherings.

“In events such as festivals that have a specific organizer, there are discussions between the relevant municipalities, police, fire departments and medical specialists who prepare and cooperate with different roles,” Hong said. “That’s what we missed in this accident.”

Yongsan District declined to answer questions about preparations. Instead, the district’s mayor Park Hee-young said in a statement on Monday that her office was using “all administrative resources” to support the injured and victims’ families.

In the past two years, the region’s Halloween preparations have focused on preventing the spread of COVID-19 among revelers. Workers toured bars, restaurants and nightclubs to monitor social distancing rules, and checkpoints were set up in busy areas where civil servants and volunteers took the temperature of partygoers.

Saturday’s crash was the country’s worst disaster since 304 people, mostly high school students, died in a ferry sinking in April 2014. The sinking exposed lax safety rules and regulatory failures.

South Korea has a long history of deadly crowd crashes and riots, though none as deadly as Saturday’s. In 2005, 11 people were killed and dozens injured at a pop concert during a crowd crush in the southern city of Sangju.

In 1960, 31 people died after being crushed on the stairs of a railway station as large crowds rushed to board a train during the Lunar New Year holidays.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *