SEOUL, South Korea — The first warning came about four hours before a lightning strike turned deadly in Seoul’s Itaewon district as revelers celebrated Halloween.
“Too many people are going up and down and it’s too scary,” the unidentified caller told police in the South Korean capital as crowds built around 6:30 p.m. local time (4:30 a.m. ET) on Saturday. “People can’t come down but [people] also grow from and I think [they] could be crushed to death.
It was one of 11 call transcripts released by South Korea’s National Police Agency on Tuesday, which show callers used the Korean word meaning “crushed to death” at least 13 different times while They were asking for help before the tragedy unfolded in a narrow alley that runs between the hotel and a dense row of shop windows. Authorities said 156 people had been killed.
Police and government officials faced pointed questions about why they hadn’t employed crowd controls or enough staff in the small nightlife district, despite the anticipation of a crowd of 100,000 people.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon wept and briefly interrupted a press conference on Tuesday as he spoke about the relative of a 20-year-old woman who was pronounced dead earlier in the day. “I’m sorry my apology came late,” he said.
His comments came less than 24 hours before members of the National Police Agency’s Special Investigations Unit raided the city’s police department as part of its investigation into whether the bureaucratic incompetence contributed to the situation.
“At around five people per square metre, any type of crowd movement can create a crush,” said John Drury, professor of crowd psychology at the University of Sussex in the UK. “It actually collapses the chest, causes asphyxiation, and people can die standing up.”
Based on a video he had seen, he said the situation in Seoul was “a recipe for disaster” because too many people were in one place, making it difficult for them to leave, and he didn’t. there was “no single flow of movement because people were trying to do different things.
Her assessment appears to be corroborated by Lee Kyung-min, 29, who said she got dressed and made up for a rare chance to have fun after the easing of Covid restrictions in recent months and get rid of the stress of a demanding new job.
At first she said she was curious about the large number of people, so she joined the crowd with her friend but “suddenly we felt the crowd was building up very quickly and I felt stuffy.”
“Then I started to smell a strange smell that often comes with too many people around,” she said, adding that they turned away “because we felt the crowd was dangerous.”
Stewards and barricades could have been put in place to regulate the influx of crowds, said Keith Still, professor of crowd science at Suffolk University in the UK. “Once you understand the risk, put in place the mitigation measures to regulate the number of people flocking to that area,” he said.
Because Saturday’s festivities had no central organizer, unlike political events or pop concerts, government authorities were not legally required to establish or enforce security protocols. Chief Kim Gwang-ho of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency told a press conference on Monday that the police had no legal advice on how to respond.
He said 137 officers were dispatched to the neighborhood, more than in years before the pandemic, although they were tasked with crime prevention rather than crowd control.
He added that the police had anticipated large crowds but “did not expect large-scale casualties.”
Milad Haghani, a senior lecturer in transport and security research at the University of New South Wales in Australia, says police should have been better prepared on Halloween, which is not a traditional holiday in Korea. of the South, but which remains a major attraction for young people and widely promoted in bars and clubs.
“You can go back in time and get a rough idea of how many people showed up and also take into account that this is an event after social distancing measures were lifted,” he said. he declares.
He added that “routes for paramedics to navigate the crowds were not planned, and because the area was so restricted, it would have given no access to the heart of the crowd.”
With emergency personnel effectively blocked from tending to unconscious bodies, revelers like Sophia Akhiyat, a doctor visiting from Florida, said she had to step in to perform CPR. “It was just the sheer number of casualties on the ground,” she said.
Even though the planning was poor, Haghani said there are crowd management tools based on artificial intelligence that allow operators to quickly deploy emergency measures.
“Using real-time CCTV footage, you can determine the mood of the crowd using facial recognition tools and tell when it’s getting uncomfortable,” he said. “If someone has the expertise to interpret these signals, then you can stop the influx.”
National Police Chief Yoon Hee Keun acknowledged on Monday that initial investigations revealed that the police did not effectively deal with calls informing the authorities of the potential danger of the crowd gathering in Itaewon.
Yoon said police had launched an internal investigation into officers’ handling of emergency calls and other issues, including the on-site response to the influx of crowds in Itaewon that night.
Among the calls examined, there will be one which arrived around four minutes before people start falling each around 10:15 p.m.
Noting that screams were heard on the phone, the call transcript reads: “We are going to be crushed to death here. It’s crazy.”
Stella Kim reported from Seoul and Mithil Aggarwal from Hong Kong.