SEOUL, South Korea – (AP) – South Korea’s police chief admitted “a heavy responsibility” for failing to prevent a recent mass wave that killed more than 150 people during Halloween celebrations in Seoul, saying on Tuesday that officials had not effectively dealt with previous emergency calls about the impending disaster.
The admission comes as the South Korean government faces growing public scrutiny over whether Saturday night’s mass stampede in Seoul’s Itaewon district, a popular nightlife district, could have been prevented and who should shoulder responsibility for the country’s worst disaster in years.
“I feel heavy responsibility as the head of one of the related government offices (for the disaster),” Yoon Hee Keun, commissioner-general of the Korea National Police Agency, said at a televised news conference. “Police will do their best to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.”
Yoon said an initial investigation found that there had been many urgent calls from citizens notifying authorities of a potential crowd hazard in Itaewon, but officials who received the calls did not respond satisfactorily.
Yoon said the police then launched an intensive internal investigation to look more closely at the officers’ handling of the 911 calls and other issues such as their response on the ground to the mass surge in Itaewon that night.
The disaster – which killed at least 156 people and injured 151 others – was centered on a narrow, downhill alley in Itaewon. Witnesses described people falling on top of each other, suffering severe breathing difficulties and falling unconscious. They also recalled that rescue workers and ambulances couldn’t reach the crowded lanes in time because the entire Itaewon area was extremely crowded with slow-moving vehicles and crowds of partygoers in Halloween costumes.
During a Cabinet Council meeting on Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol also acknowledged that there is a lack of research on crowd management in South Korea. He called for the use of drones and other high-tech resources to develop an effective crowd control capability. He said the government will soon hold a meeting with experts to review overall national safety regulations.
The mass flooding is South Korea’s deadliest disaster since the 2014 ferry sinking that killed 304 people and exposed the country’s lax safety rules and regulatory failings. Saturday’s mass flooding has subsequently raised public questions about what South Korea has done to prevent man-made disasters.
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 on Saturday to maintain order during 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 — not crowd control.
The death toll could rise as officials said 29 of those injured were in serious condition. The dead included about 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 condolence over the disaster.
Known for its foreigner-friendly, cosmopolitan vibe, the Itaewon region is the country’s hottest spot for Halloween events and parties, where young South Koreans compete in costume contests in bars, clubs and restaurants. The gathering of an estimated 100,000 people in Itaewon on Saturday marked the largest Halloween celebration in the region since the pandemic began.
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.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.