Itaewon crush: First emergency call came hours before crush

The first call to police from Itaewon came at 18:34 local time - several hours before the deadly crush took place.

The caller to South Korea's 112 emergency number said they were on the main street to Itaewon and an alley next to the Hamilton hotel was becoming dangerously crowded.

"That alley is really dangerous right now people going up and down, so people can't come down, but people keep coming up, it's gonna be crushed. I barely made it to get out but it's too crowded. I think you should control it," the caller said.

The police officer asked if the caller meant that people weren't flowing well, that "they get crushed and fall, and then there's going to be a big accident?"

Yes, the caller responded - "this is so chilling right now".

That was the first of at least 10 calls to police over the next three hours. But that night, local residents say, the police presence was wholly inadequate.

Mounting evidence, experts and a series of official apologies point to glaring failures. Local officials and police were simply not prepared for the crowds that had gathered, and struggled to manage them once they were there.

Earlier on Tuesday South Korea's police chief said their emergency response was "inadequate" - the first acknowledgement from officials that they did not do enough to prevent it.

By some estimates, hundreds of thousands of people had descended on Itaewon - popular for its nightlife - to celebrate Halloween. It was a startling number even for the usually busy neighbourhood.

Jeong An-sook lives two blocks behind the main street in Itaewon, about 300 metres from where the crush happened. She tried to go out between 21:00 and 22:00 local time, but said the crowd in her street was so dense she could not move. Frightened, she retreated to her home.

A restaurant owner who returned home at 22:00 local time said he could not even exit from Itaewon station because it was so crowded. So he went to a different station and circled back home.

Another woman, a money changer who was selling flowers for people to lay down at the makeshift shrine to the victims, said she saw few police officers - attempts to organise the crowd were being made earlier in the evening by local volunteers, she said, not the police.

She also said that the local business association had requested help from the police last week in dealing with the crowds at the weekend, but did not get it.

We now know that there were two meetings held by the local council, Yongsan-gu. The first was with the local police, the local subway station chief and the association of local businesses on 26 October. There was a second meeting the following day, just among council staff members, to discuss how to handle the Halloween festivities at the weekend.

According to the Yongsan district website, they discussed Covid quarantine measures, inspection of food vendors, safety at big venues and subway stations, rubbish collection and illegal parking. The district mayor, Park Hee-young, said on 27 October, "This is the first Halloween in three years without social distancing. We will do everything we can to ensure the safety of residents as we are concerned about the renewed spread of Covid-19, drug incidents and other accidents".

There is no evidence that anyone raised or discussed possible crowd control problems in either meeting.

Local businesses told the BBC there had been a Global Village festival earlier in October, showcasing Itaewon's cosmopolitan character. That was organised by the council, and there was a prepared crowd control plan.

But after the accident, Mayor Park told local media that the Yongsan council had done everything it could, but the fact that the Halloween celebrations had no single organiser made it different from other events. She has since apologised to the victims and their families.

Even as the blame game among officials continues, the fact remains that no one stopped hundreds of people, mostly in their teens or 20s, from converging in the sloped alley that night. Once than happened, experts say, what came next was nearly impossible to prevent.

The narrowness trapped them, and the slope meant that when some fell, it triggered a domino effect on others. People were also moving in several directions at once, jostling and trying to escape the crush.

Police are investigating claims that some members of the crowd triggered the crush by yelling out "push, push", but experts say that was expected with what they call an "abnormal crowd".

Any more than five people per square metre is considered potentially dangerous - and there were at least 10 people per square metre in that alley, according to Baek Seung-joo, a fire safety professor at Open Cyber University. He says he made the estimate based on images and footage.

"Instinctively, in such a situation, people don't help each other, they compete and don't follow orders… You can't blame the young people who pushed others when they were under extreme pressure," he said. "The authorities are responsible for failing to control the crowd in advance."

Officials and experts now believe one reason why so many people thronged that particular alley was its proximity to the Itaewon subway station, a spot with high foot traffic.

Kwon Seolah, chief of the Center for Disaster Safety Innovation at Chungbuk University, suggests that officials could have ensured subway trains bypassed Itaewon station, or blocked off vehicles from entering the district to make more space for pedestrians.

A police officer stands guard at the exit of a subway station as people gather to pay their respects following a crowd crush that happened during Halloween festivities, in Seoul, South Korea, November 1, 2022.
The alley where the crush happened was close to the Itaewon subway

But officials blame one another for that failure. The national police say they asked the Seoul City Metro to prevent trains from stopping at Itaewon station on Saturday to limit the crowds. The Metro has denied this, saying it only received an official request one hour after the deadly crush had happened.

The Yongsan police have also said that local businesses asked them not to control the crowds at the weekend to avoid reducing their customers; the local business association has denied this.

But it seems clear that the police did not undertake even the simplest of crowd control measures found in other places.

Yet the seriousness of the situation was apparent in that first call to police hours before deaths were reported.

"No one is controlling it right now," the caller said. "The police has to control this. You should let people out first and then let people in. People keep pouring in but they can't get out."

Additional reporting by Youmi Kim and Jungmin Choi


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