South Korea starts probe into Seoul Halloween crowd crush as nation mourns

A 561-member task force has been formed to look into the details of the surge

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South Korean police have opened an investigation into what caused a crowd surge that killed 154 people on Saturday during Halloween festivities in Seoul as President Yoon Suk-yeol and other residents paid respects to the dead at temporary mourning sites.

A 561-member task force will look into the details of the crush that also left 149 people injured, many of them critically, the Interior and Safety Ministry said.

The deadly crowd surge happened at a sloped, narrow alley in Seoul’s Itaewon district, a popular nightlife district, with witnesses and survivors recalling a “hell-like” chaos of people falling on each other “like dominoes”.

The entire Itaewon area was extremely jammed with slow-moving vehicles and partygoers clad in Halloween costumes, making it impossible for rescuers and ambulances to reach the site in time, AP reported.

South Koreans flocked on Monday to memorials honouring the dead, AFP said.

Mourners wept, prayed and placed flowers at a huge official altar set up in central Seoul for victims, mostly young women, with many railing against authorities' failures to prevent the incident.

“I am devastated by what happened; they were just trying to have a good time,” student Hwang Gyu-hyeon, 19, told AFP, weeping and struggling to speak clearly, as she explained how the deaths of so many people her own age had affected her.

“I pray for the victims. I can't believe this accident happened despite the signs that were clear beforehand. Nothing was done to prepare for this crowd,” she said.

Officers are analysing footage taken by security cameras in the area at the time of the surge and related video clips posted on social media.

They were also interviewing witnesses to find exactly when and where the crowd surge started and how it developed, said the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.

A team comprising police officers and government forensic experts was set to conduct a joint investigation in the Itaewon area, according to local media reports.

“The government will thoroughly investigate the cause of the incident and do its best to make necessary improvements of systems to prevent a similar accident from recurring,” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said.

The Itaewon area, famous for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, is the country’s hottest spot for Halloween-themed events and parties. It popularity among young South Koreans had increased in recent years.

An estimated 100,000 people were gathered there for the country’s largest Halloween celebrations since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

But some business owners in Itaewon said an even larger number of people had gathered there for Halloween weekend festivities before the onset of the pandemic.

Police said in a statement they fielded 137 officers to maintain order during Halloween festivities last Saturday — much more than the 34 to 90 officers mobilised in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Some observers said the scope of the investigation would include a look into an apparent lack of safety steps, as well as witness accounts that the crowd surge was caused by some people intentionally pushing others and making them fall.

The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency did not immediately publicise the details of its probe.

As of Monday morning, the government said it has identified 153 of the 154 dead people and informed their relatives. Nearly two thirds of the dead were women.

The government said the death count could rise as 33 of the 149 people injured in the crush are in serious condition.

More than 80 per cent of the dead were in their 20s or 30s while 11 were teenagers, the Interior Ministry said.

The dead also included 26 foreigners — five from Iran, four from China, four from Russia, two from the US, two from Japan and one each from Australia, Norway, France, Austria, Vietnam, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Sri Lanka, the ministry said.

President Yoon on Sunday declared a one-week period of national mourning and ordered flags at government buildings and public offices to fly at half-mast.

The crowd surge was South Korea’s deadliest disaster since 2014, when 304 people, mostly high school students, died when a ferry sank.

Updated: October 31, 2022, 9:56 AM