Seoul’s deadly Halloween stampede caused by negligence

The deadly stampede that killed more than 150 people in Seoul last Halloween was due to negligence and lack of preparation, a South Korean police investigation concluded Friday.

The victims of this tragedy that occurred on October 29, 2022 in the Itaewon district, known for its nightlife, were young people dressed in costumes to have fun, most of them women in their twenties.

The special team in charge of the investigation, which spent months gathering evidence and questioning the authorities concerned, concluded that there had been a massive failure, both at the organizational level and in the reaction on the ground.

“The organizations legally bound to prevent and manage disasters – the police, Seoul district offices and the public company Seoul Metro – did not take any security measures in advance or their plans were inadequate “, team leader Sohn Jae-han told reporters.

“No appropriate action was taken even after the emergency calls were received” on the day of the disaster, he asserted, adding that the lack of cooperation between the competent authorities and the communication delays contributed to the increase of balance.

For their part, the collective that unites the families of the victims declared that they are not satisfied with the result of the investigation.

Lee Jong-chul, who heads one of these collectives, judges that it is impossible for the police to conduct an impartial investigation of its own agents. He is pleading for the opening of a fully independent investigation.

“I have never had confidence in the work done by the special team in charge of investigating the Itaewon tragedy,” he told local media.

In addition, Mr Jong-chul told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that it was disappointing – but to be expected – that high-ranking officials, such as the interior minister and the mayor of Seoul, had not been investigated.

A few hours before the tragedy

According to Sohn Jae-han, the Itaewon district was busy on the day of the tragedy as early as 5 pm, a few hours before the disaster struck.

The density of individuals reaches a critical level around 9 pm, called the “liquid phenomenon”, when people are forced to move together, the crowd moves like a liquid, he added.

Despite the situation, the authorities did not intervene.

The first fall happened around 10:15 pm, investigation team spokesman Kim Dong-wook said, adding that four more individuals fell to the ground within the next 15 seconds, triggering a scramble.

“Without any insight into the situation, the people at the top of the street continued to push down for ten minutes, until 10:25 pm, causing hundreds of corpses to be piled up, trapped and crushed over ten meters, Dong-wook said.

Six people were arrested in connection with the investigation, including Lee Im-jae, the former Yongsan police commissioner who covers Itaewon district, and Park Hee-young, the Yongsan district chief.

Both are in custody for professional negligence causing the death of another.

In December, a teenage survivor of the tragedy was found dead in an apparent suicide. The authorities decided to count him as a victim of the disaster, bringing the death toll to 159.

No member of the government is responsible

The team of investigators, however, refrained from naming government officials or the police, arguing that it was “difficult to assume that there was a breach of duty”.

The Home Secretary was heavily criticized after the tragedy, with some calling for his resignation after he claimed more firefighters and police could not have prevented the tragedy.

He has apologized on multiple occasions, including to the victims’ families last week, but has not tendered his resignation.

South Korea’s rapid transformation from a poor, war-torn country to Asia’s fourth-largest economy with a global cultural reach remains a source of national pride.

But a series of preventable disasters – such as the Itaewon tragedy and the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 in which 304 people lost their lives – have shaken people’s trust in their authorities.

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