Despite Warning Signs of a Deadly Crowd Crush, Korean Officials Didn’t Act
For years, officials had known that Halloween weekends in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in Seoul, attracted large crowds, warning internally that people could be “crushed to death.”
For days, they had held meetings and filed reports about their expectations for “disorderly” throngs, with one local police chief asking higher-ups to deploy crowd control officers.
For hours, they had received desperate calls about partygoers trapped in a narrow alleyway, pleas for the authorities to intervene as people were “falling and hurt” in a “bottleneck.”
Each time, the authorities ignored or missed the warnings, crucial chances to prevent a crowd crush in Itaewon on Oct. 29 that would kill 158 people and leave 196 injured. A New York Times analysis, based on witness accounts, investigators’ findings, parliamentary testimony and official documents released to lawmakers, provides troubling new details of the government’s lax approach to safety and the failures in its emergency response.
Less than a dozen police officers were in the area until 8 p.m., almost an hour and a half after the first call for help. Emergency dispatchers directed officers to street fights and other lesser incidents, while officials monitoring surveillance cameras didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Rescue and crisis management efforts were delayed by a lack of coordination and poor coordination, with many supervisors and top officials unaware of the crisis until 11 p.m. or later.
South Korean authorities and lawmakers are now investigating what went wrong, especially how officials missed early signs of trouble and why it took so long to send help.
“It’s a disaster created by administrative incompetence,” said Min Hyungbae, an independent lawmaker who visited the Itaewon alleyways alone on a recent night. “It’s as if our country is going backward.”
The police and fire departments, as well as various agencies involved in the emergency response, including the local ward office, declined to comment beyond previous public statements. The president’s office said it has ordered a thorough investigation and will take further actions based on its results.
Despite its technological, economic and cultural achievements, the country has been plagued by a series of human-caused disasters, including a department store collapse, a ferry sinking and catastrophic fires.
Until moving into a new official residence, President Yoon Suk Yeol had lived in an apartment tower built on the site of the department store collapse. On the eighth anniversary of the ferry disaster in April, he said “the sincerest way of commemorating the victims was to make South Korea safe.”
When thousands rallied this month to mourn the Itaewon tragedy, they denounced him for failing to fulfill his promise.
“The way to commemorate the victims is for you to resign!” they chanted.
Ignoring Early Signs
This year’s Halloween gathering, the first since pandemic-related restrictions ended, promised to be big.
Days before, officials discussed ways to make the night safe and manage disorderly crowds, largely sharing concerns of people spilling into car lanes and men wielding “fake weapons” and “bikini girls” who might expose “too much,” according to official documents from the police, the fire department and the Yongsan ward office, which oversees Itaewon. The police, in a news release, reported a spike in the number of people searching “Halloween” and “Itaewon” on the internet.
The growing popularity of the holiday and the potential for “safety accidents” had long worried the authorities. In 2020, when the Halloween crowd was smaller, the police warned in an internal document, obtained by opposition lawmakers, of possible “crush deaths.”
The warrens of bars and restaurants were also made more cramped by unpermitted construction at the Hamilton Hotel like a metal wall, further restricting the lanes around it including the alleyway, where the fatal crowd crush would occur, according to police and Seoul government officials. The local Yongsan authorities slapped fines but did nothing to remove the illegal structures.
The hotel did not comment, citing the pending investigations.
South Korea runs battalions of police officers with specialized training in crowd control. On the day of the tragedy, 4,700 were deployed along the road from downtown Seoul to the president’s office, less than a mile from Itaewon, to monitor tens of thousands of protesters frustrated with his leadership. None were assigned to Itaewon, where an estimated 130,000 people were in attendance that night.
Days before the disaster, the Yongsan police station repeatedly asked the Seoul Metropolitan Police for such officers to be on site for Halloween, the Yongsan police chief, Lee Im-jae, told Parliament.
Mr. Lee said he was told they could not be diverted from the political rallies.
On Oct. 25, the chief of the Itaewon police station, which is smaller and supervised by the Yongsan one, told higher-ups that he “desperately” needed more officers to control Halloween traffic, according to parliamentary testimony by the Seoul police chief and opposition lawmakers.
But when police and city officials met with Itaewon business owners the next day to discuss Halloween, they did not make plans for crowd control, Woo Jong-Soo, chief superintendent general of the National Police Agency, said this month.
On Oct. 29, 137 officers were assigned to Itaewon, and at least 52 were detectives specializing in drug crimes. The police invited journalists to cover their busts, according to South Korean media and the reporters themselves.
When asked whether the government’s war on drugs distracted officials from ensuring crowd safety, the Seoul metropolitan police chief, Kim Kwang-ho, told Parliament last week that “we were significantly focused on drugs.”But the president’s office said the disaster was unrelated to his new antidrug campaign in recent weeks, instead blaming the police and other agencies for failing to anticipate crowd accidents.
Dismissing Desperate Pleas
The police planned to deploy most of the 137 officers after 8 p.m., based on Halloween traffic from previous years. Before 8 p.m., only 11 officers from the Itaewon police station were on duty, according to Lee Hyungseok, an opposition lawmaker who reviewed police records.
The city’s new digital map was in operation to track real-time densities if officials had wanted to monitor the crowds. Separately, the Yongsan ward office, which runs surveillance cameras throughout Itaewon, failed to report anything unusual, Kim Sung-ho, a senior home ministry official, said during a briefing.
Desperate calls from Itaewon started coming into the 112 emergency hotline at 6:34 p.m. People reported “utter chaos” and a crowd “out of control,” according to call logs released to lawmakers.
“It looks like people are going to be squashed to death,” said the first caller, describing masses of people pressing from both ends of the alleyway.
Between then and 10:11 p.m., more than 10 calls came in pointing to a crowd surge.
The first call was dismissed as nothing serious, Hwang Chang-son, a senior official from the National Police Agency, told reporters. The dispatchers did not follow up closely on subsequent calls, either.
Higher-ups also failed to detect a crisis developing, including their supervisor, Senior Superintendent Ryu Mi-jin, who was in her own office upstairs.
“All I can say is that I am sorry,” Ms. Ryu said during a parliamentary hearing, adding that it was customary for the supervisor to be separate. She said she was not informed of the crisis until 11:39 p.m., nearly an hour after rescuers were already on the scene.
Dispatchers at the hotline passed the details on two calls — at 8:37 p.m. and again at 9:01 p.m. — to their counterparts at a separate 119 disaster-response center, asking them to look into reports of a possible crowd crush. But the cases were closed after those dispatchers spoke to the callers, according to the fire department’s answers to lawmakers.
“We regret that those on duty did not pay enough attention,” Nam Hwa-young, acting chief of the National Fire Agency, which manages the 119 hotline, told Parliament.
Throughout the evening, Kim Baek-gyeom, a sergeant in the Itaewon police station, said he and his colleagues were busy with routine assignments. Around 10 p.m., he said he and two colleagues were sent to check on a possible street fight near the alleyway. When they got there, they saw the crowd crush.
“We heard screams and commotion, and when we pushed our way through, we saw people crushed under a wave of human bodies and holding out their hands asking for help,” Mr. Kim said in a radio interview. “Until then, we had no idea what was happening.”
Triggering Alarms Too Late
A call to the 119 hotline at 10:15 p.m. finally got the authorities’ attention.
“You have to send police, fire engines, whatever you got — people are being squeezed to death,” the caller said, according to the logs. “I see injured people sprawled on the street.”
Eighty-six more calls came into the hotline over the next several hours. Dispatchers could hear screaming, crying, moaning and shouts of “Please help!” and “Don’t push! Don’t push!”
At 10:42 p.m., more than four hours after the initial report about the crowd surge, firefighters reported their first official contact with victims, urgently asking for help. “We are performing CPR on 15 people but we don’t have enough hands,” a firefighter said, according to transcripts of the firefighters’ communications.
Choi Seong-beom, head of the Yongsan fire station, repeatedly asked for more rescuers, according to the transcripts. He also pleaded for more police officers to help clear the streets of crowds and cars blocking ambulances and emergency responders.
“There are so many patients who need CPR we can’t count them,” Mr. Choi said.
It was not until 10:48 p.m. that the narcotics detectives — who did not catch a single drug user that night — were redirected to rescue efforts, according to the police. Crowd control officers were assigned to Itaewon only at 11:40 p.m., three hours after the political rallies ended.
A lack of coordination complicated efforts. A dispatcher from the National Emergency Medical Center complained to counterparts in the fire department and Seoul city that the police were blocking some rescuers from the scene. At one point, the dispatcher threatened to “stop sending our teams out,” according to an exchange between the agencies obtained by another lawmaker.
“Stop transporting the dead now,” the dispatcher told 119 counterparts. “We first have to move the 40 people who are still alive, including those in critical condition.”
The government initially said that there was a limit to what it could do to control spontaneous crowds of partygoers. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo cited a lack of “laws” and “systems.” “My office has done all it could,” Park Hee-young, chief of the Yongsan office, said on Oct. 31.
As public outrage mounted, the government’s tone shifted. “How can you say we could not deal with it because of a lack of system?” the president said last week.
But President Yoon blamed officers in the field. “The 137 officers should have been able to handle it,” he said. “Why did they just look and do nothing for four hours? They were there.”
A number of mid-ranking police and fire officials have been suspended from their jobs or are under investigation for possible criminal negligence. A police officer under investigation died by suicide last week.
Finding Fault at the Top
South Koreans have expressed gratitude to rescuers. They flooded the website of the Yongsan fire station with thank-you notes and sent fried chicken and tangerines to the Itaewon police station.
Increasingly, they have directed their anger at senior leaders. At a government mourning site near City Hall, a woman who said she lost her son destroyed a condolence wreath from Mr. Yoon. A citizen hung a 46-foot-long banner, demanding the “embarrassing” president resign.
The absence of senior leaders can prove problematic in the country’s hierarchical bureaucracy. “South Korean public servants rarely act unless their bosses tell them what to do,” said Yoon Yong-Kyun, a professor of public safety at Semyung University.
The president learned about the disaster at 11:01 p.m., and his home minister, who was in charge of all police and firefighters, at 11:20 p.m. It was nearly midnight when Seoul issued mobile phone alerts asking citizens to avoid Itaewon.
Mr. Kim, the Seoul police chief, did not learn of what happened until Mr. Lee, the Yongsan police chief, called him at 11:36 p.m.
After dealing with the political protests until the early evening, Mr. Lee had planned to check on the Halloween festivities that night. He finished dinner and headed to Itaewon a mile and half away, listening to communications on the police radio along the way.
Traffic was heavy, and after an hour in the car, he decided to get out and walk, his gait casual with his hands behind his back, according to surveillance camera footage. He later said during a parliamentary hearing that he was unaware of the crisis unfolding until he reached Itaewon at 11 p.m.
“I feel so miserable,” Mr. Lee said. “I will be guilty before the victims and their families as long as I live.”