Police warned of unsafe Itaewon crowd conditions as early as 6:34 pm night of crush

Posted on : 2022-11-02 15:56 KST Modified on : 2022-11-02 15:56 KST
The police fielded numerous calls referencing the hazardous crowd control prior to the deadly crowd crush
Yoon Hee-keun, commissioner general of the Korean National Police Agency, delivers a statement on the Itaewon crowd crush at the agency’s headquarters in Seoul’s Seodaemun District on Nov. 1. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
Yoon Hee-keun, commissioner general of the Korean National Police Agency, delivers a statement on the Itaewon crowd crush at the agency’s headquarters in Seoul’s Seodaemun District on Nov. 1. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)

“I thought I might get crushed to death. It’s chilling. No one is controlling it.” (Oct. 29, 6:34 pm)

“People are pushing and shoving and it’s a total mess; people are falling down and getting hurt.” (8:09 pm)

“People are falling down on the street; it feels like an accident’s going to happen, things look dangerous.” (8:33 pm)

“People are practically getting crushed to death. It’s a complete mess.” (8:53 pm)

Around three hours before a crowd crush killed over 150 in Itaewon, police received 11 reports signaling the severity of the overcrowding, with people saying that they felt like they were getting crushed to death. However, officers were only dispatched in response to four of those reports.

When it was revealed that the police failed to respond to reports, Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun of the Korean National Police Agency (KNPA) apologized and set up a special investigation unit to begin an inquiry into the police’s reaction.

The KNPA announced that 122 police reports had been received on the day of the accident. They also revealed transcripts of 11 calls to 112, the police emergency number, that acted as warnings for the disaster to come.

The first report came at 6:34 pm. This was when the term “crushed to death” started to appear. The caller said: “I’m nervous. People are unable to walk down the road, but people keep pushing up from the bottom. I feel like I’m going to get crushed to death. I think someone needs to get control of this situation.”

In response to the report, the call staff said that an officer would be sent to the site to check on the situation. A KNPA official commented, “The police did go to the site of the first report and ordered people to disperse.” They also went on to mention that whether the police actually went to the scene would have to be checked in the inquiry.

Only 4 of 11 reports responded to with officer dispatch

In the window of time between the first 112 call and a mere four minutes before the crowd crush, the police received 10 more reports signaling the danger of the crowd in Itaewon. However, seven of those reports were dealt with only via phone consultations with no officials sent to the scene.

A KNPA official stated, “The cases were closed after notifying the reporter that police were nearby or after informing them of the situation.”

After being dispatched to the scene an hour before the incident (9:02 pm), no additional police officers were dispatched in response to the five additional reports they later received. The National Office of Investigation (NOI) is checking to see if any of the people who reported the situation to the police were among those killed in the crush.

Yoon acknowledged that the police’s response was insufficient and made a public apology three days after the incident. Holding a briefing to address the Itaewon disaster, Yoon said, “It has been confirmed that there were several reports made to 112 about the severity of the situation right before the incident.”

“Despite that, we have found the responses to those reports to be insufficient.” He bowed his head in apology.

To combat allegations about the incident, the NOI stated that they would set up a special investigation unit and conduct an intensive inquiry into the police’s handling of the case. This is a follow-up measure to a pledge made by Yoon to establish an independent unit at the KNPA to uncover the circumstances of the incident thoroughly and transparently.”

The NOI transitioned the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s investigation headquarters into a special investigation office to guarantee independence. Son Je-han, the current head of the Changwon central division of the Gyeongnam Provincial Police Agency, has been appointed as head of this independent inquiry team, with 501 people assigned to the office. The head of this special investigation office will independently investigate both the cause of the incident and who shall prove to be responsible for the Itaewon crowd surge.

The NPO launched an inspection on the Yongsan Police Station, which has jurisdiction over Itaewon. Kim Ho-seung, team leader of the KNPA’s audit and inspection department, will lead a separate investigation with 15 audit and inspection team members to determine whether appropriate measures were taken, from the preparation of the Halloween festival to on-site response.

During the Q&A session after the briefing, in response to a question about whether the police can transparently investigate themselves, Yoon stated that “under the revised criminal procedure code, the scope of the investigation is decided by the police investigation authorities.”

In response to requests for those in police leadership to step down, Yoon said, “At present, resolving the current issue and coming up with measures to deal with the aftermath of this incident is the main priority.”

He went on to say that once a conclusion is made, he will act accordingly, no matter when that might be.

By Jang Na-rye, staff reporter

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

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