‘Man-made disaster’: Officials slammed over Seoul deaths

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Seoul Police has assigned 137 officers to deal with a crowd of Halloween revelers expected to number more than 100,000 over the weekend — a decision that has came under heavy criticism following the deaths of more than 150 people when the group grew.

By comparison, nearly 7,000 police were dispatched to another part of the South Korean capital on Saturday to monitor the dueling protests that drew tens of thousands of people, but still fewer people than those who poured in in the popular nightlife district of Itaewon on the same night. Even the task force set up to investigate the reasons for the surge in crowds, with 475 members, is more than three times larger than the detail attributed to 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 spiral out of control.

Experts disagree. The deployment of so few police, they said, showed officials were ill-prepared when they knew in advance there would be a huge gathering after COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed these days. last months.

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

Instead, Itaewon’s 137 officers were tasked with policing crime, with a particular focus on narcotics use, meaning that for all intents and purposes, “no one was dealing with pedestrian safety. “said Kong Ha-song, professor of disaster prevention at South Korea. University of Woosuk.

The deaths should be considered a “man-made disaster”, said Lee Changmoo, a professor of urban planning at Hanyang University in Seoul.

The authorities faced similar criticism in national media and on social media. The headline of an editorial in the Hankyoreh newspaper on Sunday described the tragedy as “all too avoidable”. The newspaper said its reporting showed a pedestrian was run over by a mob in Itaewon a day before Halloween festivities – although no one was injured.

Saturday’s crowd surge happened in a downhill lane between a dense row of storefronts and the iconic Hamilton Hotel. The path was clogged with a crowd of revelers before some of them fell and tipped over “like dominoes”, witnesses said.

Rescuers 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 specialist and chief spokesperson for the Korea Association of Emergency Physicians, said CPR, which should ideally be administered within minutes, would not have done much harm. difference in many cases because paramedics were delayed. to the stage because the area was so crowded.

Kong, the disaster prevention professor, said more police and officials should have been called in to watch for potential bottleneck points. He suggested that the crash could have been avoided if the authorities had imposed one-way traffic lanes, blocked the entrance to some narrow lanes and temporarily closed the Itaewon subway station to prevent excessive numbers of people from entering. move 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 space to disperse, Kong said.

Lee, the urban planning professor, criticized Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min, who claimed, without giving further details, that having more police and firefighters on the ground would not have not prevent the tragedy.

Asked about the number of officers assigned, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said 137 were still more than it dispatched in 2020 and 2021, excluding units specifically assigned to control measures. viruses. Police and government officials have acknowledged that this year’s crowds were larger – but it’s unclear by how much.

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

“Our country generally does a good job following the playbook and maintaining crowd control at events where there is a specific organizer,” he said. “But officials often don’t know what to do or don’t even care about events that aren’t created by a specific organizer…although it’s those events that usually require closer scrutiny.”

Hong Ki-hyeon, a senior official with the national police agency, acknowledged the problem at a Monday news conference, saying the police did not have an established method for handling such gatherings.

“At events like festivals that have a specific organizer, discussions are held between relevant municipalities, police, firefighters and medical experts who prepare and cooperate under different roles,” Hong said. “That’s what we were missing in this accident.”

Yongsan District declined to answer questions about the preparations. Instead, District Mayor Park Hee-young said in a statement Monday that his office was deploying “all administrative resources” to support the injured and the families of the victims.

For the past two years, the district’s preparations for Halloween festivities have focused on preventing the spread of COVID-19 among revelers. Workers visited bars, restaurants and nightclubs to check if they were following social distancing rules, and checkpoints were set up in crowded areas where public workers and volunteers took the temperature of revelers .

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

South Korea has a long history of crowd crushes and deadly stampedes, but none as deadly as Saturday’s. In 2005, 11 people were killed and dozens were injured at a pop concert in a crowd crush in the southern town of Sangju.

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

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