[News analysis] How the state failed to prevent the deadly crush in Itaewon

Posted on : 2022-11-07 17:01 KST Modified on : 2022-11-07 17:01 KST
The Hankyoreh has reconstructed the 5 hours and 40 minutes for which the state was asleep at the wheel, leading to inadequate preparation and response to the tragedy in Itaewon
wo people who lost four coworkers stand before a memorial space set up for victims of the Itaewon crowd crush outside Exit 1 of Itaewon Station on Nov. 3. (Kim Jung-hyo/The Hankyoreh)
wo people who lost four coworkers stand before a memorial space set up for victims of the Itaewon crowd crush outside Exit 1 of Itaewon Station on Nov. 3. (Kim Jung-hyo/The Hankyoreh)

The starting point for finding the truth about the deadly crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood on Oct. 29 lies in discovering the details about the period of five hours and 40 minutes when the South Korean state was absent: from 6:34 pm, when the first calls about the gravity of the situation in Itaewon were made to the 112 emergency services number, to 12:14 am the following day, when the first report on the situation was made to National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun, the figure tasked with preserving the public’s safety.

To date, there has been no full explanation about this period, when it might have been possible to prevent the deaths of the 156 victims, or at least some of them. The Hankyoreh identified details that had been learned as of Nov. 3, as well as others that still need to come to light.

Negligence: Why were 112 reports ignored?

The numerous calls made to 112 from Itaewon on the day of the tragedy were sent to the 112 public security situation office of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA). Senior Superintendent Ryu Mi-jin, the head of the SMPA’s personnel education department, was in charge of the situation office on the day in question, but she reportedly remained in her office at the time rather than in the situation room.

Ryu returned to her place at 11:39 pm on Oct. 29 — an hour and 24 minutes after the situation in Itaewon turned deadly.

“The situation officer at the time could have taken discretionary measures such as sending more police to Itaewon or reporting directly to the National Police Agency commissioner general,” commented one police official. According to this explanation, Ryu’s absence may have been the reason that more police were not sent in and the situation was not reported on to the nation’s top cop.

On Thursday, the SMPA’s special inspection team reportedly made the decision to commission an investigation of Ryu by the special investigation team.

Major questions remain about how the absence of one person prevented the SMPA as a whole from perceiving the severity of the situation in Itaewon. At least 11 calls about the risk of a crowd crush had been made to 112 as of 10:15 pm, when the situation turned deadly, and 87 reports to 112 came from the Itaewon area over the 45 minutes between then and 11 pm.

It was not until 11:36 pm that SMPA chief Kim Gwang-ho first became aware of the situation. Before that, the reports to the SMPA about the desperate situation that was unfolding were effectively ignored.

Lack of a response: What “controls” and “explanations” were provided at the scene?

The calls received by the SMPA were reported to the Yongsan Police Station and Itaewon patrol box for an on-site response. The contents of the 112 transcripts made public by the police on Nov. 1, as well as the “resolution” of them, were full of expressions that come across as incomprehensible in light of the scale of the tragedy.

In the case of the first call made at 6:34 pm, the record states it was resolved by “forcible dispersing” an hour and 37 minutes later at 8:11 pm. Afterwards, the record includes references to the calls being resolved by “informing about the deployment of offices,” “controlling citizens in the vicinity” and “explaining to the caller about the situation on the ground.”

The wording gives the impression that the dangers were properly resolved, or that the situation was peaceful enough not to require police to be sent to the scene.

To date, the police have not explained how exactly they “controlled” the scene or resolved the issues cited in the calls. But the Yongsan Police Station said, “There were too many people there to observe things clearly.”

“When they went out in response to several cases, they would resolve one incident and tell the next caller ‘They’ve moved to a different location, so it’s all right’ and resolve it that way. But those kinds of things were not included in the on-site response, so it was listed as having been ‘resolved after explaining the situation,’” it explained. The account suggests that the situation could not be controlled because of the overwhelming size of the crowds compared with the police presence.

Uncooperativeness: Why was there no police support?
At around 7:34 pm, police officers with the Yongsan Police Station who were managing the scene finally made an emergency request to the station’s transportation division asking for a transportation squad (20 officers) to be sent in, but it was not granted. This is because the officers were already managing the scene at a nearby candlelight march calling for a special prosecutor to investigate first lady Kim Keon-hee and the resignation of President Yoon Suk-yeol.

The transportation squad did not arrive in Itaewon until 9:30 pm, after the demonstration had ended.

The police’s focus on managing the demonstration rather than the threat of a crowd crush was also apparent at the level of the SMPA. The transportation squad sent in that day was provided in place of the security squad that the Yongsan Police Station initially requested from the agency. Even that squad was sent in after finishing with its demonstration management duties, rather than providing dedicated support to manage the crowds in Itaewon.

Three days before the tragedy, the possibility of an incident was raised internally by police with a report titled “Analysis of the Itaewon Halloween Day 2022 Security Situation and Comprehensive Public Security Measures.” To date, no details have been made public on how safety management was ignored in favor of managing the demonstration, or how far the risk of an incident was reported up the government’s line.

Chaos: Why did the reporting system break down?
Also in need of examination is the response from the office of the President, which is responsible for detecting and controlling national disaster situations in real time through the police and fire department.

In terms of the vertical chain of reporting from the police/fire department to the Ministry of the Interior and Safety (MOIS) and on to the office of the president, the “police” component broke down completely on the evening of Oct. 29.

NPA Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun did not receive a report on the situation until the next day, at 12:14 am on Oct. 30. President Yoon Suk-yeol had received a report on the disaster at 11:01 pm through a report from firefighting authorities.

Yet Lee Sang-min, who as minister of the interior and safety oversees the firefighters and police, received his first report on the tragedy 19 minutes later at 11:20 pm.

The first stage of reporting, from the National Fire Agency’s situation room to the MOIS situation room, took place at 10:48 pm. At 11:19 pm, the MOIS situation room sent out emergency text messages to internal employees — but the minister himself was left out of the text loop. According to sources, the report on the situation came from Lee’s secretaries, who did receive the messages.

When asked by reporters on Sunday about why he had received his report on the tragedy later than President Yoon, Lee avoided giving a direct answer.

“Right now, the top priority is consoling the family members and helping those who have been hospitalized to quickly recover,” he replied.

Questions also remain about the gap of 40 minutes or so between when the office of the president received its first report on the situation in Itaewon and when the police leadership became aware of the tragedy. This has some observers asking why the office of the President did not ask the police to check on the scene or actively share the information after first learning of the situation.

While the governance situation room received its first report from the NFA at 10:53 pm, SMPA chief Kim Gwang-ho did not receive his until 43 minutes later at 11:36 pm, and Yoon Hee-keun did not receive his until 81 minutes later at 12:14 am.

Even if the situation had been shared with police shortly after 10:53 pm, it might have been possible to hasten the response to the disaster, including crowd and transportation control to allow severely wounded people to receive emergency attention or be taken to the hospital.

“We communicated to the police through different channels about the severity of the situation,” a senior official with the office of the president told the Hankyoreh, although they did not mention specific times or other details.

By Bang Jun-ho, staff reporter; Jang Ye-ji, staff reporter; Lee Woo-yun, staff reporter; Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

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

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