South Korea is investigating the exact cause of deadly crowds that killed 154 people at a Halloween event, as public anger grows over perceived failures in police and crowd control.
What went wrong and why did so many people die at the first post-pandemic Halloween party in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in Seoul?
Here is what we know:
– What’s going on? –
The government promised to conduct a “comprehensive and transparent investigation” into the exact causes of the deadly destruction in Itaewon, and police said on Monday they had set up a task force and launched the investigation.
They have released forensic experts, seized footage from 50 security cameras in the area, and interviewed dozens of witnesses, victims and workers at nearby shops, according to a senior police officer.
– How did this happen? –
Typically, a gathering of more than 1,000 people must submit Safety Management Plans to the government in advance for review by the police and fire departments.
But in the case of Itaewon Halloween celebrations, there is no proper event organizer – individual bars, clubs and restaurants simply hold their own events and people flock to the area.
Just weeks ago, a “Global Village Festival” was held safely in the exact same streets – but it was an organized event sponsored by local authorities.
As a result, it had “effective crowd control with several responsible police officers and district office staff,” said Kim Min Kyu, who runs a currency exchange near the scene of the accident and witnessed both events.
The police admitted there were loopholes in their real-time management of the event.
“Police officers at the site did not detect a sudden increase in the crowd,” Hong Ki-hyun, head of the Public Order Management Office of the National Police Agency, told local reporters.
– Why was it so bad? –
Experts say the outbreak of crowds could have been prevented with proper preparation, but they admit that things are becoming more difficult after years of pandemic-related lockdowns.
“Event organizers everywhere in the world are struggling with the post-Covid crowd,” said Eric Kant, crowd safety specialist who runs Phase01 Crowd Management.
“A lot of visitors are new to partying, they are already very excited, and may not understand the risks very much,” he added.
Experts say the main risk factors for increased crowds are people’s “unrestricted entry” into a small space, and “tickets not being sold” which means organizers don’t have an accurate estimate of demand – all of which happened in Itaewon.
“This is a recipe for disaster in mass gatherings,” crowd safety expert Milad Haqqani of the University of New South Wales told AFP.
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Even for the Halloween event – a public gathering without tickets – the authorities could have managed the situation effectively to prevent overcrowding.
“Back in the day, that means watching the numbers, to say the least,” said John Drury, an expert on crowd psychology at the University of Sussex.
“It could also mean a public information campaign beforehand to discourage such large numbers of attendees.”
He cautioned that psychology studies show that people are in fact looking for “objective dangerous levels of intensity” in events, and organizers need to be aware of this risk.
– Who is to blame? –
So far, no one has been held accountable, even as public anger rages on the government and police for their apparent lack of oversight.
Senior officials have shrugged off questions of responsibility, saying the priority now is to help victims and deal with the fallout from the accident.
Much of the local criticism has focused on the police – but experts say they are not necessarily at fault.
“We must remember that the primary role of police in general is not crowd management,” said Martin Amos, a professor at Northumbria University who works on crowd simulation.
“It is possible to manage an event to a large extent using guards, with the police being there to ensure public order and deal with criminal activity,” he told AFP.
– what happened after that? –
The government is under tremendous pressure to solve this problem quickly and properly.
The opposition Democratic Party has already criticized the government’s handling of the event, and is likely to push for resignations once the period of national mourning ends on November 5.
The crush of Itaewon could deal another blow to President Yoon Seok Yeol’s popularity ratings – which are already at an all-time low.
There is also the possibility that the disaster, if mishandled, could become a significant political burden on the government.
In 2014, President Park Geun-hye was in power during the sinking of the Seoul ferry in which 304 people – mostly schoolchildren – died. She was widely criticized for her handling of the incident.
The case remained on her presidency until she was impeached three years later over a corruption scandal.