Mourners engulf the entrance to the Itaewon subway station in Seoul, South Korea; white chrysanthemums spill around the entrance railings, and bottles of soju and post-it notes line the sidewalk beside them as offerings to the young victims. Next to the makeshift memorial, Buddhist monks pray for the souls of the victims and a somber tone overlays the area. The crowd crush incident occurred on October 30th, and has been dubbed the ‘Halloween Nightmare’. It induced a country-wide mourning period.
Dozens of clubs, bars, and restaurants line the narrow alleyways that branch off of the main street in Seoul’s bustling district of Itaewon. On the night of the tragedy, a crowd of over 130,000 thousand revellers congregated on its streets to celebrate Halloween, a major clubbing night for the country’s youth. One party-goer described the crowd as, “next level…[People] had no control [over where they were] going to move at times.”
Early that night, concerned revelers called the police, warning them of a possible surge, yet no one responded to the calls. At 22:15, tragedy struck; on a sloping alleyway off the subway entrance, party-goers toppled over one another as crowds pushed to escape the narrow space. Arms and legs tangled together as the partygoers got swept deeper into the chaos, bodies piled six to seven individuals deep.
Crushed under the weight of others, victims grew unconscious after 15 seconds of suffocation, and six minutes later, they died from lack of oxygen and blood flow to the brain. Raw footage of the surge shows police reaching for individuals buried under the human piles. In the background, others cried for help, their faces blue.
The Seoul police force and public officials were severely underprepared to handle the masses. They estimated that only 100,000 people would gather in the district, citing pre-pandemic festivities. However, due to the lack of events during the long lockdown, young people anxiously returned to social life in hordes, bringing the number to over 130,000 people that night. Further, although the police had promised to send at least 200 officers to patrol the night’s celebration, only 137 were in Itaewon at the time – investigating sex and drug street crimes. Although this number is still higher than the number of officers present pre-pandemic, revelers severely outnumbered them.
Thus, bystanders and survivors helped the police carry individuals out of the tangled herd onto Itaewon’s main street. When first responders finally arrived at the scene at 22:42 pm, they also collaborated with medical specialists to administer CPR. The night ended with 350 missing person reports. Final numbers indicate that the crowd crush took the lives of 156 victims and injured another 156; most were teenagers or young adults. The youngest victim was in middle school.
Crowd-safety experts criticize the government and police for not taking more active measures against the overpopulation of the Itaewon district. Paul Wertheimer, head of the California-based Crowd Management Strategies said, “law enforcement should have been managing access to the alleyway, almost as if they were nightclub bouncers.” This is not the first time South Korea has managed large-scale events; the country is known for mass political protests that are required to be registered in advance and monitored by the police. Just last month, BTS held a free concert in Buscan with approximately 55,000 attendees. As these events show, South Korea has crowd management strategies in place, begging the question why the tragic Halloween festivities were exceptional in their mismanagement.
Officials differentiated between the Halloween celebration and other events, saying that the festivities were not organized by a sole entity tasked with ensuring attendees’ safety. Instead, responsibility defaulted onto the police and fire departments. In an apology to the nation, President Yoon Suk-yeol instructed the government to formulate general crowd-control systems for the near future. He promised that his party will focus on the improvement of safety infrastructure equivalent to those of other developed countries. The Ministry of Interior and Safety also pledged to provide KRW 15 million for the organization of each victim’s funeral, and KRW 20 million in relief funds to each affected family. Medical treatment for the injured will be provided for free through national health insurance.
After another public apology from the nation’s Head of Police, a task force of 500 has been commissioned to investigate the reason for the police department’s delayed response and the cause of the crowd crush. The task force interviewed 44 survivors and witnesses, and reviewed security footage as well as social media videos in an attempt to ascertain the cause of the tragedy. Some interviewees claim that the crowd was pushed forward intentionally, but the task force has not identified any criminal offenses. It has also confiscated service reports from the Yongsan police department, which covers Itaewon, the fire department, and the Metro for inquiry into the situation’s improper handling. These documents will provide further insight into the events leading up to and during the crowd crush. No news of the circumstances that led to the surge has been released.
As South Koreans await justice for the victims, a blanket of anxiety has settled over the nation. News stories, photos and videos of Saturday’s chaos spread across social media, as the tragedy unfolded. Horrific scenes of mangled, pale bodies covered in blue sheets lining the streets permeate the nation’s consciousness.
Paik Jong-woo, a psychiatric professor and chairman of the Korean Society for Traumatic Stress studies noted that, “witnessing tragic deaths at an unexpected location, even through pictures and videos, can cause immense trauma and stress. Post-traumatic stress doesn’t only affect those directly involved.” Survivors and witnesses report panic attacks at the sound of sirens, and insomnia, induced by the tragedy. Others are unable to eat from the guilt of not saving more lives during the incident. Citizens are on edge, hoping that positive change ensues. They pray that their government strengthens public safety, namely crowd management measures to prevent future disasters.
As South Korean citizens await answers, The Stork offers its condolences to the families and friends who have lost their loved ones.