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INTERVIEW'Seoul's deadly Halloween crowd crush was avoidable'

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Korea should hire outside experts with Red Cross to set up safety systems

By Kim Yoo-chul

Public anger has mounted over the crowd crush in Itaewon that left at least 158 people dead after it was revealed in phone transcripts released by authorities that many people had called the police warning about overcrowding risks hours before the tragedy happened.

Police and other authorities have come under fire and faced questions about why they did not enforce crowd control measures or deploy a sufficient number of personnel on the streets of Itaewon that night, despite anticipating a crowd of 100,000 or more and police receiving such warnings in advance. Witnesses have described tens of thousands of costumed partygoers celebrating Halloween there, falling over like dominoes.

An investigation continues in search of who should be held accountable for the disaster, while a senior police inspector who was under suspicion of dereliction of duty was found dead in his home, recently. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon blamed a lack of proper preventive measures as the main cause of the disaster. Only 137 police officers were at the scene that night. However, the officers had primarily been assigned to traffic duty and crime prevention.

Speaking to The Korea Times, Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during the Barack Obama administration, said Seoul's population density and the unexpected movement of crowds may have played a key role in the tragedy.

People place flowers to pay tribute to victims of a deadly crowd surge that killed over 150 people in the neighborhood of Itaewon during Saturday night's Halloween festivities, at a makeshift flower-laying area set up near the scene of the accident in Seoul, Nov. 3, 2022. AP-Yonhap
People place flowers to pay tribute to victims of a deadly crowd surge that killed over 150 people in the neighborhood of Itaewon during Saturday night's Halloween festivities, at a makeshift flower-laying area set up near the scene of the accident in Seoul, Nov. 3, 2022. AP-Yonhap

But she said the tragedy was avoidable.

"I want to begin with how sorry I am for what happened in South Korea. So many young people who were so excited to finally be out after so many years. In many ways, the South Korean government is responsible for its inability to recognize that the crowd crush was avoidable," Kayyem, a disaster management expert and also national security analyst for CNN, said in a recent interview.

"And in fact, crowd control is one of the most studied areas of disaster management and mega event planning. Crowds are difficult. However, they've been studied. I don't think there was a particular trigger to this disaster," she responded.

In the Itaewon disaster, city officials should have considered safety features especially for crowded conditions, experts said. The officials also should have foreseen and prevented overcrowding. Kayyem said one of the eventual goals in disaster management is to extend runways.

"Maybe one person fell. Maybe there was a noise. If you just simply look at the crowd density, the narrow alleyways, the lack of public safety and crowd control personnel, the events that happen did not need a particular triggering event. And that's important to remember. South Korean officials, in other words, they had time. And if I blame them for anything, it's that they didn't utilize that time adequately," Kayyem, also a lecturer in international security at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, stressed. Costumed partygoers became trapped because the very narrow streets got clogged up.

Juliette Kayyem
Juliette Kayyem
The expert went on to say that there was sufficient information and even situational awareness to show that crowds in the streets of Itaewon on the night of Halloween was a different kind of crowd.

"South Korean officials needed to buy themselves more time. And they could have done that by stopping the flow of people and releasing the stress levels, releasing the stress points that existed on the street. And if they had done those two things, you stop people from coming in and you loosen up the density where they are. I have no doubt that lives would have been saved," she continued.

The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA) confirmed that investigators recently searched eight precincts and seized documents related to repeated calls made by citizens on the night of the tragedy.

Disaster not incident

South Korean authorities described the crowd crush as an "incident." But Kayyem said, while it's understandable for local authorities to call it an incident, she doesn't think that term will continue to be used.

"I define a disaster or crisis as an event that is disruptive, in which your response time is limited. South Korean officials did not respond adequately. This is a devastating indictment on preparedness on South Korean leadership," she added.

"The crowd crush in Itaewon was a combination of crowd density, narrow streets, and lack of inadequate public safety to steer people into more open areas. And all of those were avoidable. Whatever you want to call it, it's a tragedy," Kayyem said.

People attend a candlelight vigil for victims of the Halloween crowd crush in Seoul, Nov. 5, 2022. Thousands of South Korean citizens gathered in downtown Seoul to hold a candlelight vigil for the Halloween crowd crush victims and condemn the South Korean government's response to the accident. The signs read
People attend a candlelight vigil for victims of the Halloween crowd crush in Seoul, Nov. 5, 2022. Thousands of South Korean citizens gathered in downtown Seoul to hold a candlelight vigil for the Halloween crowd crush victims and condemn the South Korean government's response to the accident. The signs read "Resignation of President Yoon Suk-yeol." AP-Yonhap

The Itaewon disaster can be compared to the 1943 Bethnal Green disaster in London that left 174 people dead on the steps leading down to the entrance to Bethnal Green subway station to during an air raid. A disaster inquiry report detailed the circumstances. However, authorities responsible for monitoring the underground shelter were not punished and the blame was placed on the victims for "loss of self-control" that led to a stampede

While the Bethnal Green case needs to be understood within the context of war _ shortage of police, for example _ the disaster led to the adoption of various safety measures that London commuters are familiar with now. Kayyem said the South Korean government should hire outside experts with a possible collaboration with the International Red Cross.

"Government can set up systems, protect people, guide people, educate people, demand accountability, demand safety features in the private sector, all of it," she said.

Regarding questions over a series of measures that were taken following the disaster, Kayyem said South Korea's response and planning are quite sophisticated. However, she stressed that something went terribly wrong.

"And the only way to fix it is through an honest accounting, so that the policies and the procedures get better. Someone knew that something was going terribly wrong, and yet it went ongoing for hours. And that's the hard part. And that's the hard part to tell the families of the many victims," Kayyem said.

"If the right communication, the right situation awareness, the right authorities had been put in place beforehand when you had the time, it may have been clearer to authorities what was happening, and they might have been more consistent, more direct in making sure that they stopped things from happening," she added.


Kim Yoo-chul yckim@koreatimes.co.kr


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