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  • MinSeok Cho

The Itaewon Stampede on Halloween

Thousands were excited for the Halloween party in one of Seoul, South Korea’s most cosmopolitan neighborhoods, Itaewon. However, what was supposed to be a celebration ended in tragedy on October 29, 2022. As of November 3rd, government officials reported 156 were reported dead and at least 187 other people injured.

The victims’ age range were from teenagers to people in their 50s with the bulk of victims averaging to be in their 20s. Two Americans were among the dead. Both were college students studying abroad in South Korea.

Flowers set up in memorial of those lost in Itaewon, South Korea. Source: Korea Times

Itaewon is a neighborhood in Seoul that is well known for its diversity and vibrant nightlife. It’s a young city driven by people in their 20s and 30s who gather in Itaewon for drinks, entertainment, and delicious food. This year’s city-wide Halloween party was particularly special because it was the first Halloween event in Itaewon after the lifting of the outdoor mask mandate policy.

The first sign that something was wrong was noticed several hours before the stampede actually transpired. An initial report to the police at 06:34 PM, a few hours before the party began, noted that a caller told city authorities that “the street is unstable, and people are walking up and down the narrow hill. We are almost going to die from the pressure.” After the initial report, there were 11 more emergency calls regarding the incident. The police dispatched a few officers in the beginning, but their response was largely nonexistent as people began to be crushed, despite further calls.

Around 10:15 PM, a large mass of people near the Hamilton Hotel downtown began to slow down in a narrow alley. People continued to funnel into the tight space from on top of the hill. People started to lose the ability to breathe comfortably. Those who were stuck in the middle shouted to not push. However, newcomers from on top of the hill weren’t able to hear. Some who didn’t realize the situation at the bottom of the street wanted to continue moving, and screamed to push the crowds onwards.

Police and fire department officers eventually arrived at the scene and began to pull people out from danger with citizens who had escaped the deathly mass of people. Survivors who were at the buildings gave a hand to several people and held them up to escape them from the crowd. Police sergeant Baek-gyeom Kim was one of the dedicated rescue workers during the Itaewon incident. He was desperate to evacuate citizens from the alley. BBC interviewed sergeant Kim, and he said "I feel I didn't do my best. I didn't fulfill my duty as a Korean police officer and I'm very sorry."

Survivors were moved to a nearby hospital, but those who had fainted were laid out on the street. Citizens there all helped them start CPR, alongside firefighters and police.

The next day, South Korean President Suk-yeol Yoon, visited the street where the incident happened with high ranking officials. After that, the president proclaimed a national mourning period from October 18 to November 05. Due to the national mourning period, many artists and celebrities canceled their concerts or events, and companies that also planned an event related to Halloween canceled or ended it early.

In front of the Itaewon subway station, white chrysanthemums were laid out, and short letters with grievances were written. Those who went there with friends visit again to pay tribute. Tributes were also being paid near where the incident happened to commemorate all the victims. The City of Seoul opened a group memorial altar for the victims of the incident until November 06.

Minister of the Interior And Safety, Sang-min Lee, who is in charge of Korea National Police and Korea National Fire Agency, noted the failures of the Korean authorities of Itaewon incident could have been prevented “by deploying police or firefighters in advance.” This meant the officials already knew that the incident could have been prevented by deploying police or firefighters. In addition, the Police Chief Hee-Keun Yoon took a large responsibility for delayed police and rescue deployment at the site.

More evidence that the government response lacked support is continuing to come to light. Im-Jae Lee, who was suspended from the head of Yongsan Police Station, appeared on the scene at about 11:00 PM, which was more than an hour after the official record. Police officials said that he was late because he didn’t take the vehicle due to a traffic jam from ambulances and police cars. In addition, new suspicions came out that a high ranking official from the police agency deleted the evidence of an early urgent report call regarding the incident in order to cover the inactivity of the police force.

Due to the crisis from Itaewon, the government plans to control the flow of subway users. It focused on certain stations that are known for being busy and highly dense. Some subway lines, especially during commuting hours, are called “hell-ways,” referring to how they do not have enough space to even stand up. Foreign press around the world reported the crisis, and Japan All-Nippon News Network (ANN) analyzed the situation by modeling the exact situation and reenacted instructions of coping with crowded places and preventing similar incidents.

Korean citizens’ trust toward the police has dropped because of this incident. The government must come up with guidelines or manuals to prevent similar incidents in the future, and make sure police are helping people who are in danger, in order to quell fears. Unlike Sewol Ferry - ferry collision incident that incurred 304 victims in 2014 Korea - which was distorted as a field of political dispute, some public argue that the politics should not be involved too deeply in this social incident. But the truth about the police's poor performance must be resolved, and made justice.

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