Inquiry finds officials in Seoul had failed to employ adequate crowd control for an expected Halloween crowd of 100,000.
South Korean police are seeking charges of involuntary manslaughter and negligence against 23 officials – including law enforcement officers – over public safety failures they said were responsible for a crowd crush in the capital, Seoul, that killed 159 people in a popular nightlife area.
Son Je-han, who headed the National Police Agency’s special investigation into the tragedy, said on Friday that his team will now send the case file to prosecutors following the conclusion of an investigation into the events of that night.
Despite anticipating a crowd of more than 100,000 for Halloween festivities in October 2022, Seoul police had assigned fewer than 140 officers to the capital’s busy nightlife district Itaewon on the day of the crush and most were focused on monitoring drug use and violent crimes, which experts said left few resources for crowd safety.
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The results of the 74-day police investigation announced by Son mostly confirmed what was already clear – that police and public officials failed to employ meaningful crowd control measures for the expected numbers of Halloween revellers and essentially ignored emergency calls placed to police hotlines that warned of a swelling crowd hours before the situation turned to a deadly crush on October 28.
More than 500 investigators looked into the role of district officials, police, fire and other emergency services to “get to the bottom of the deadly accident”, South Korea’s official Yonhap News Agency reported on Friday.
Officials also botched their response once people began to fall over and were crushed in a narrow alley clogged with partygoers, Son said.
“[Their] inaccurate judgement of the situation, the slow distribution of information about the situation, poor cooperation between related institutions and delays in rescue operations were among the overlapping failures that caused the high number of casualties,” Son said at a news conference in Seoul.
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Yonhap reported that after the first person fell over, crowds unaware of what was taking place continued to push down the alley for 10 minutes, leading to the crush and huge loss of life.
“As crowds piled into the alley, crowd density shot up to 10.74 people per square metre … on the barely 4-metre-wide bottleneck path, leaving many ‘pushed back and forth by crowds with their feet above the ground’,” Yonhap reported, quoting a spokesman for the investigation team.
Among the 23 people recommended for indictment are Park Hee-young, mayor of Seoul’s Yongsan district, and the district’s former police chief Lee Im-jae. They are two of six people who have already been arrested in connection with the incident.
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It is unclear whether the results of the police investigation will be enough to calm public anger in South Korea and further demands for government accountability.
Opposition legislators and some relatives of the victims have demanded investigations into more high-profile figures, such as Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min and National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun, who have also faced calls to resign.
“We have so many questions unanswered,” Lee Jong-chul, head of a group representing the bereaved families, told reporters as he arrived at a prosecutor’s office in Seoul on Friday.
“We came here to give a victim’s statement, expecting a better, expanded investigation.”
However, Son said the special investigation team will close its inquiries involving the Interior and Safety Ministry, the National Police Agency, and the Seoul Metropolitan Government, saying it was difficult to establish their direct responsibility.
Some experts have called the crush in Itaewon a “man-made disaster” that could have been prevented with fairly simple measures, such as employing more police and public workers to monitor bottleneck points, enforcing one-way walk lanes and blocking narrow pathways or temporarily closing Itaewon’s subway station to prevent large numbers of people moving in the same direction.