154 perish in S. Korea’s Halloween nightmare: 3 factors that contributed to mass casualties

Posted on : 2022-10-31 14:19 KST Modified on : 2022-10-31 14:19 KST
A lack of crowd control in the swarmed Itaewon neighborhood, notorious for its perilously narrow and steep alleyways, contributed to the tragedy
Fire brigade members can be seen in Itaewon on Oct. 29, the night that a crowd surge turned deadly, killing at least 154. (Yonhap)
Fire brigade members can be seen in Itaewon on Oct. 29, the night that a crowd surge turned deadly, killing at least 154. (Yonhap)

In the aftermath of the worst crowd crush in South Korea’s modern history, many are expressing anger and grief over the tragedy that they say could’ve been avoided. The Hankyoreh has analyzed the incident to understand why it had a much higher death toll than other large-scale crowd surges that have occurred elsewhere in the world.

1. Crowd of over 100,000 people

More than 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon on the night of the accident, as it was the first Halloween weekend in three years for which social distancing and other disease control measures were lifted. Some say that the crowd had recovered to a pre-pandemic level, but it’s clear that the crowd overwhelmed Itaewon, which is known for its narrow, twisting alleyways.

The crowd was unusually large, even in the eyes of those who frequent the area.

A 37-year-old surnamed Kim who comes to Itaewon every Halloween to busk said, “It was so packed, people were filling the roads. I’ve never seen so many people here.”

People dressed up in costumes for the festivities could be seen on the way from the Itaewon to Noksapyeong subway stations until 1 am on Sunday.

An Itaewon resident in their 40s surnamed Lee described the alley where the crowd surge took place as “an alley that a ton of people go through each [year], without there being any [crowd] control.”

“I knew something like this would happen one day,” Lee said. “Since it’s a special tourist zone, people come in masses whenever there’s some sort of event. It makes everything a mess.”

On Oct. 15-16, Itaewon hosted the Global Village Festival, which also drew around 100,000 visitors. The fact that the Halloween crowd in 2021 was similar in size was a subject of renewed interest, stirring controversy.

Because this year’s Halloween festivities were not an official event overseen by the district office, nor were they a rally, the police also had their hands tied.

Kim Hyeong-jun, a 20-year-old who works at a nearby tobacco shop, said that while everything had been under control during the Global Village Festival, there were not enough police present in Itaewon for the Halloween weekend.

First responders can be seen arriving in Itaewon in the early hours of Oct. 30, following a disaster that took the lives of over 150 people. (Yonhap)
First responders can be seen arriving in Itaewon in the early hours of Oct. 30, following a disaster that took the lives of over 150 people. (Yonhap)
2. Steep narrow alleys

The alley where the incident occurred is located near Hamilton Hotel, and forms a T-shape.

The crowd surge occurred when, at this three-way intersection that leads to Itaewon Station, many people rushed into the alley, which is only 3.2 meters (10.5 feet) wide.

The alley is steeply sloped, with a 10-meter difference in elevation from one side to the other.

According to people who were present when the surge occurred, people in the crowd started to say “Push, push!” at the three-way intersection. The pandemonium began when people in front started to fall under the pressure of those behind them.

Seon Taek-kyu, a 27-year-old who witnessed the night’s tragedy, stated, “People were slowly making their way up the alley when suddenly they became stuck. It would’ve been fine if people would have stayed still, but the people at the bottom of the alley were trying to come up, while the people at the back were pushing forward.”

“I think that’s what made the situation worse,” he said. “The force of the people at the back pushing forward was so strong, everyone started to tumble over.”

Seon also said that people at the front started yelling “Help us! Stop pushing!” to no avail.

Choi Seung-hwan, a 21-year-old who witnessed the surge at 11:30 pm, shared, “I was getting swept away by people and was heading down the bigger back alley to Itaewon Station when I heard someone shout “Fire!” That was when I started to see people stripped of their clothes being carried away on stretchers. It was so crowded and noisy; most people probably didn’t know what was going on.”

Booths set up along the neighborhood’s “world food street” may have also affected the incident.

The street is located in the alley behind Hamilton Hotel. As the main road on which Itaewon Station is located and the world food street became packed with people, tragedy struck in the narrow alley connecting the two roads.

A bottleneck occurred when the crowds of people moving in either direction on the world food street met and tried to escape through the narrow alleyway. This is why some argue that the disaster could have been prevented if the police or Yongsan District Office had taken preventative measures such as ensuring traffic was only traveling one way on certain streets so as to control the flow of people.

3. Delayed rescue

Delayed rescues due to the inordinate amount of people also was a factor in the scale of the tragedy.

Police near the scene of the accident said they were stuck in place.

A senior police officer at a local Itaewon precinct remarked, “How were we supposed to get there when even the fire brigade was unable to make it in? We kept getting reports, but we couldn’t do anything.”

The officer went on to say that the sidewalk in front of the police station was overflowing with people. “At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we could crack down [on crowds] because there was a business shutdown, but now we can’t do that,” he said.

Nor was it easy for ambulances to make their way to the scene immediately as there were many unauthorized vehicles parked along the main throughway of Itaewon-ro, in addition to there being more than 100,000 people out and about in the area.

Ambulances tried to enter via the alley that runs from Noksapyeong Station to Itaewon Station, but they could barely get through with the help of a police escort due to the unauthorized vehicles on the road. Since there was not enough space on the roads for the ambulances to maneuver, it took longer to transport patients to nearby hospitals.

With ambulances unable to enter, patients in cardiac arrest were left unattended in the middle of the streets.

“It was difficult for the police or ambulances to make their way in,” shared a 30-year-old surnamed Ji who was at the scene. “Bystanders had no choice but to help out at the scene.”

“It must have been because of all the people, but it felt like the ambulances came later than usual,” they added.

The first report regarding the surge was received at 10:15 pm, but it took fire engines and ambulances belonging to the Yongsan Fire Station rescue team (Itaewon 119 Safety Center) 6 minutes to arrive at the scene. First responders said that despite arriving at 10:21, however, it took a significant amount of time to wade through the throngs of people and begin their rescue procedures.

Yeom Gun-woong, a professor of police and fire administration at U1 University, said, “When one is under the amount of pressure that a crowd surge causes, blood flow to the heart or the brain stops. The ‘golden time’ [for resuscitation] is four minutes, but even then it is difficult to save people by administering CPR.”

“It seems that fire trucks being unable to enter the alley contributed to the incident growing in scale,” Yeom commented. “The alleyway was so narrow; all the conditions surrounding this incident were unfortunate. Nothing worked in anyone’s favor.”

By Kwak Jin-san, staff reporter; Ko Byung-chan, staff reporter; Lee Woo-yun, staff reporter; Ahn Tae-ho, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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