South Korean police on Friday blamed negligence and planning for the failures of last year’s Halloween crowds in Seoul that killed more than 150 people.
Dozens of young party-goers, most of them women in their 20s, died in the disaster on Oct. 29 in the capital’s nightlife district, Itaewon.
A special team that spent months searching for evidence and interviewing those responsible said, at the end of the investigation, there had been significant failures of planning and response — but stopped short of blaming any government official or national police agency.
“The organizations that are legally required to prevent and respond to disasters — the police, district offices, and the Seoul metro — didn’t take safety measures in advance or came up with bad plans,” Son Jae-han, head of the team, told reporters.
“Even after receiving the rescue requests,” he said, “appropriate measures were not taken” on the day of the disaster.
He added that poor cooperation between agencies and delays in communications and relief efforts contributed to the high death toll.
Groups of families of the victims said they were not satisfied with the results of the investigation.
It was impossible for the police to fairly and impartially investigate their officers, said Lee Jong-chul, the leader of one such group, calling for a completely independent investigation.
“I didn’t trust this, since the Special Investigation Team started investigating the Itaewon disaster,” he told local media.
He told Yonhap news agency that it was disappointing – but expected – that senior officials including the interior minister and the mayor of Seoul were not investigated.
– South Korea: hours before the disaster –
Sun said the area became very crowded from 5 p.m. on the day of the accident, hours before the disaster.
He added that crowd density had reached the level of a critical “fluidity phenomenon” – when there are so many people crammed into a space that they have to move as one, like a liquid – by 9 p.m.
But even so, the authorities failed to intervene.
The first fall occurred around 10:15 p.m., said Kim Dong-wook, a spokesman for the investigation team, adding that at least four more people fell in the next 15 seconds, leading to the collapse.
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“Unaware of this situation, the crowd at the top continued pushing the alley for 10 minutes, until 10:25 p.m., causing hundreds of people to pile up and trap them more than 10 meters away, which led to the collapse,” Kim said.
Six people have been arrested due to the investigation – including Lee Im-jae, the former chief of the Yongsan Police Station, which oversees Itaewon, and Park Hee-young, the chief of the Yongsan District Office.
Lee and Park are both taken into custody for professional negligence resulting in death.
In December, a teen who survived the stampede was found dead of an apparent suicide, and officials ruled he should be considered a victim of the disaster, bringing the death toll to 159.
– No senior government officials –
But Sohn said the team did not blame any officials from the Seoul city government, the Ministry of the Interior, or the National Policy Agency, as “it was difficult to infer that there was a concrete breach of duty.”
Home Minister Lee Sang-min faced mounting pressure to step down over the tragedy.
Shortly after the crash, he was widely criticized for claiming that having more firefighters and police in Itaewon would not prevent the disaster.
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Since then, he has repeatedly apologized – including in person last week to the families of the victims – but has not offered to resign.
South Korea’s rapid transformation from a poor, war-torn country into Asia’s fourth-largest economy and a global cultural powerhouse is a source of its national pride.
But a series of avoidable disasters – such as the Halloween crush and the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry that killed 304 people – have shaken public confidence in the authorities.