SEOUL, South Korea – (AP) – South Korean officials admitted responsibility and apologized on Tuesday for failing to prevent and respond to a Halloween crowd wave that killed more than 150 people and left citizens shocked and angry.
The government faces a growing public scrutiny over whether Saturday night’s crowds in Seoul’s Itaewon, a popular nightlife area, could have been prevented and who should shoulder responsibility for the country’s worst disaster in years.
National police chief Yoon Hee Keun said an initial investigation found there have been many urgent calls from citizens informing authorities of the potential danger of crowding in Itaewon. He said police officers who received the calls did not handle them effectively.
“I feel heavy responsibility as head of one of the related government offices (for the disaster),” Yoon said in a televised news conference. “Police will do their best to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.”
Yoon said police have launched an intensive internal investigation into officers’ handling of 911 calls and other issues, such as: B. The local response to the surge in crowds in Itaewon that night.
Separately, South Korea’s interior minister, the head of the emergency bureau, the mayor of Seoul and the head of a district office that includes the Itaewon neighborhood all offered public apologies.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon apologized deeply and cried, briefly interrupting his press conference while speaking about the parents of a 20-year-old woman who was pronounced dead earlier in the day.
“Yesterday when I tried to comfort a person with a daughter who was hospitalized at the National Medical Center, they said their daughter would survive and they believed it,” he said. “But I heard she died this morning. I’m sorry my apology came too late.”
The disaster, which killed at least 156 people and injured 151 others, was concentrated in a narrow downhill alley in Itaewon. Witnesses described people falling on top of each other, suffering severe breathing difficulties and falling unconscious. They said rescue workers and ambulances couldn’t reach the crowded lanes in time because the entire Itaewon area was jammed with slow-moving vehicles and partygoers in Halloween costumes.
Most of the dead were in their 20s and 30s, and about two-thirds were women.
During a Cabinet Council meeting on Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol acknowledged that there is a lack of crowd management research in South Korea. He called for the use of drones and other high-tech resources to develop an effective crowd control capability and said the government will soon meet with experts to review national security regulations.
The mass flooding is South Korea’s deadliest disaster since a ferry sank in 2014, which killed 304 people and exposed lax safety rules and regulatory oversights. Saturday’s surge has raised public questions about what South Korea has since done to prevent man-made disasters.
“My heart hurts a lot as all the victims were like my grandchildren,” said 74-year-old Chung Kil-soon after paying his respects at a grief ward on Tuesday. “People say our country is an advanced country, but I don’t think we’re really advanced.”
After the Itaewon disaster, the police deployed a 475-strong task force to find the cause.
Senior police officer Nam Gu-Jun told reporters Monday that officers received video from about 50 surveillance cameras in the area and were analyzing video clips posted on social media. Nam said police have also interviewed more than 40 witnesses and survivors so far.
Police said they dispatched 137 officers to keep order during Saturday’s Halloween celebrations, many more than the 34 to 90 officers mobilized in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before the pandemic. However, some observers questioned whether the 137 officers were enough to handle the estimated 100,000 people who had gathered in Itaewon on Saturday.
Further questions about the police’s role were added by the fact that earlier on Saturday they dispatched 7,000 officers to another part of Seoul to monitor dueling protests involving tens of thousands of people. Police also acknowledged that the 137 officers deployed to Itaewon were primarily tasked with monitoring crimes, with a particular focus on drug use rather than crowd control.
The death toll could rise as officials said 29 of those injured were in serious condition. The dead included 26 foreigners from Iran, China, Russia, the United States, Japan and other countries.
President Yoon called on officials to give the survivors of the foreign victims the same state support as the South Korean dead and injured. He also thanked many world leaders for sending messages of condolences.
Known for its foreigner-friendly, cosmopolitan vibe, the Itaewon region is the country’s hottest spot for Halloween events and parties, with young South Koreans taking part in costume contests in bars, clubs and restaurants. Saturday’s gathering was the largest Halloween celebration in the region since the pandemic.
Halloween celebrations in Itaewon have no official organizers. South Korean police said Monday they have no specific procedures for dealing with incidents such as crowds during an unorganized event.
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