20 May 2024

South Koreans gathered Monday at memorials honouring the 154 people killed in a crowd surge at Halloween celebrations, as authorities faced accusations that lax crowd control had caused the disaster.

Police said Monday they had set up a task force to investigate the exact cause of the fatal crush, seizing CCTV from businesses close to the scene in Seoul’s popular Itaewon district and interviewing dozens of witnesses.

But at an official altar set up in central Seoul to mourn the young victims, South Koreans wept, prayed — and railed against authorities’ failures to prevent the catastrophic loss of young life.

“I am devastated by what happened, they were just trying to have a good time,” 19-year-old student Hwang Gyu-hyeon told AFP, weeping and struggling to speak clearly, as she explained how the deaths of so many people her own age had affected her.

“I pray for the victims. I can’t believe this accident happened despite the signs that were clear beforehand. Nothing was done to prepare for this crowd,” she said.

Song Jung-hee, 69, said she kept thinking about how “excited and spirited” the young victims must have been, eager to enjoy a night out without Covid restrictions for the first time in three years.

“If only there had been more police officers to keep order, this would not have happened,” she told AFP.

Mourners holding flowers wait in line to pay tribute in front of a joint memorial altar for victims of the deadly Halloween crowd surge, outside the city hall in Seoul on October 31, 2022. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

– Police failures? –

Calls for accountability were growing Monday in the press and online, as potential lapses of crowd control and policing emerged.

As many as 100,000 people — mostly in their teens and 20s, many wearing Halloween costumes — had poured into Itaewon’s small, winding streets, with eyewitnesses describing scant security and no crowd control.

Police said at a briefing Monday they had deployed 137 officers to the event, pointing out that the number was significantly higher than previous years.

But local reports said many of the police officers were focused on drug use, rather than crowd control.

And the authorities themselves admitted they had not forseen that “large-scale casualties would occur due to the gathering of many people”, Hong Ki-hyun, chief of the National Police Agency’s Public Order Management Bureau, told Yonhap.

“I was told that police officers on the scene didn’t detect a sudden surge in the crowd,” Hong said.

The disaster clearly “could have been controlled or prevented”, Lee Young-ju, a professor from the Department of Fire and Disaster at the University of Seoul, told broadcaster YTN.

“But this was not taken care of, with no one taking the responsibility in the first place.”

Online, claims also spread that police this year were not actively managing the crowd, which allowed too many partygoers to congregate around the subway station and in the alleyway at the epicentre of the disaster.

“I’ve lived in Itaewon for 10 years and experienced Halloween every year but yesterday was by no means particularly crowded compared to previous years,” Twitter user @isakchoi312 wrote.

“Ultimately, I think the cause of the disaster was crowd control.”

On Sunday, the government had defended the policing plan.

South Korea is typically strong on crowd control, with the country’s regular protest rallies often so heavily policed that officers can outnumber participants.

Protest organisers must by law report plans to authorities in advance, but there were no such requirements for the young people flocking to the Itaewon Halloween event.

This means it would have been hard for police to do more.

“The current system lacks legal and institutional grounds for the police to control the general public,” a presidential office official told a briefing, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A man offers a flower at a joint memorial altar for victims of the deadly Halloween crowd surge, in Naksopyeong, near the district of Itaewon in Seoul on October 31, 2022. (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP)

– Chaos, fear –

The crush happened as tens of thousands of partygoers were packed into a downhill alleyway no more than three metres (10 feet) wide.

Eye-witnesses described scenes of chaos, as people pushed and shoved to get through, with survivors scrambling to get out of the suffocating crowd as people piled on top of one another.

Most of the 154 dead, including 26 foreigners, had been identified Sunday, with the education ministry confirming Monday that at least six young teenagers were among the victims.

But the toll could rise further with at least 33 people in critical condition, officials said.

The country started a week of national mourning, with entertainment events and concerts cancelled and flags nationwide flying at half-mast.