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South Korea's prime minister and police admit failures leading to Halloween tragedy

A South Korean army soldier pays tribute to victims of a deadly accident following Saturday night's Halloween festivities on a street near the scene in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022.
Ahn Young-joon
/
AP
A South Korean army soldier pays tribute to victims of a deadly accident following Saturday night's Halloween festivities on a street near the scene in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022.

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's police chief admitted "a heavy responsibility" for failing to prevent a recent crowd surge that killed more than 150 people during Halloween festivities in Seoul, saying Tuesday that officers didn't effectively handle earlier emergency calls about the impending disaster.

The admission came as the South Korean government faces growing public scrutiny over whether the crowd surge Saturday night in Seoul's Itaewon district, a popular nightlife neighborhood, could have been prevented and who should take the responsibility for the country's worst disaster in years.

"I feel a heavy responsibility (for the disaster) as the head of one of related government offices," Yoon Hee Keun, commissioner general of the Korean National Police Agency, told a televised news conference. "Police will do their best to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again."

Yoon said an initial investigation has found that there were many urgent calls by citizens notifying authorities about the potential danger of a crowd gathering in Itaewon, but officers who had received those calls didn't respond to them in a satisfactory manner.

Yoon said police have subsequently launched an intense internal probe to look deeper into the officers' handling of the emergency calls and other issues like their on-the-spot response to the crowd surge in Itaewon at that night.

The disaster — which left at least 156 people dead and 151 others injured — was concentrated in a downhill, narrow alley in Itaewon. Witnesses described people falling on one another, suffering severe breathing difficulties and falling unconscious. They also recalled rescuers and ambulances failed to reach the crammed alleys in time because the entire Itaewon area was extremely packed with slow-moving vehicles and a crowd of partygoers clad in Halloween costumes.

During a Cabinet council meeting Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol also acknowledged that South Korea lacks research on a crowd management. He called for using 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 rules.

The crowd surge 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 failures. Saturday's crowd surge has subsequently raised public questions about what South Korea has done to prevent human-made disasters.

After the Itaewon disaster, police launched a 475-member task force to find its cause.

Senior police officer Nam Gu-Jun told reporters Monday that officers have obtained videos taken by about 50 security 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 had sent 137 officers to maintain order during Halloween festivities on Saturday, much more than the 34-90 officers mobilized in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before the pandemic. But some observers questioned whether the 137 officers were enough to handle the estimated 100,00 people gathered Saturday in Itaewon.

Adding more questions about the role of police was the fact that they sent 7,000 officers to another part of Seoul earlier Saturday to monitor dueling protests involving tens of thousands of people. Police also acknowledged that the 137 officers dispatched to Itaewon were primarily assigned to monitor crime, with a particular focus on narcotics use — not the crowd control.

The death toll could rise as officials said that 29 of the injured were in serious condition. The dead included some 26 foreign nationals from Iran, China, Russia, the United States, Japan and elsewhere.

President Yoon asked officials to provide the same government support to the bereaved families of the foreign victims as to South Korean dead and injured people. He also thanked many world leaders for sending condolence messages over the disaster.

The Itaewon area, known for its expat-friendly, cosmopolitan atmosphere, is the country's hottest spot for Halloween-themed events and parties, with young South Koreans taking part in costume competitions at bars, clubs and restaurants. Saturday's gathering of the estimated 100,000 people in Itaewon was the biggest Halloween celebration in the area since the pandemic began.

Halloween festivities in Itaewon have no official organizers. South Korean police said Monday they don't have any specific procedures for handling incidents such as crowd surges during an event that has no organizers.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press