Seoul police headquarters raided after crowd surge deaths

Seoul police headquarters raided after crowd surge deaths

A woman kneels next to floral tributes near the site of a crowd crush that happened during Halloween festivities, in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday. (Reuters photo)
A woman kneels next to floral tributes near the site of a crowd crush that happened during Halloween festivities, in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday. (Reuters photo)

A team of special investigators has raided the headquarters of the Seoul police force, a move that comes as authorities released records of frantic emergency calls warning that crowds of partygoers were growing dangerously large in the hours before a crush that killed at least 156 people.

Eight locations were searched on Wednesday, the National Police Agency said in a text message. The raid targets included the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, the Yongsan district police station near where the deaths occurred and other agencies.

Seoul police had nearly four hours of warning that crowds were becoming a problem before Saturday’s fatal surge, transcripts of calls from worried people at the scene show, raising pressure on authorities to hold those responsible to account.

The government’s response is shaping up as one of the biggest tests for President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has seen his support slump since coming to office in May. South Korea earlier launched a probe into its worst disaster since the sinking of the Sewol Ferry in 2014 killed 304 people, an event that led to criticism of the government for its emergency response.

Police and government officials acknowledged they could have done more for crowd control during the Halloween celebrations that attracted tens of thousands of people and to respond to calls for help. Those killed in the crush were trapped in an alley 3.2 metres wide that linked a main street in the Itaewon neighbourhood to an area filled with restaurants, bars and nightclubs. 

Witnesses told local media that as people squeezed into the tiny space, some began to fall, causing others to tumble and pile into one another. Most of the victims died from asphyxiation. 

Eleven calls were made from the area of the alley to the 112 emergency line before the incident, with the earliest coming at 6.34pm, according to transcripts released Tuesday night by authorities. The disaster started unfolding at about 10.15pm.

“There are a lot of people going up and down the alley, I’m very nervous,” the earliest caller said. “People might be crushed since they cannot come down but people keep coming up. I barely escaped. There are too many people. I think you should take control,” said the person, whose name was not released.

Other calls followed, with several coming between 8pm and 10pm At 10.11pm, a person phoned to say: “I feel like I’m about to be crushed.” The caller then screamed.

The president was outraged that police took no action after receiving the warnings about the crowd sizes, Yonhap News Agency said, citing an official at his office.  

Yoon Hee Keun, commissioner general of the South Korean National Police Agency, said at a briefing Tuesday before the transcripts were released that the emergency hotline received multiple calls warning authorities of the “seriousness at the scene”.

“If you look at the contents of the calls, these were urgently informing of the danger of an incident as large crowds gathered,” Yoon said. “Nevertheless, it is judged that the response in the field handling the 112 calls was insufficient.”

Some 137 officers were in the area for the Halloween festivities on Saturday night. The majority of them were there mainly for crime prevention, according to Yonhap. A police station sits a few blocks from the scene. 

Milad Haghani, an expert on crowd behaviour and emergency preparedness, said if officers on the ground were not put in charge of controlling the flow of people, they would probably not intervene because that isn’t in their purview.

“As soon as you see this density happening, there should be an interruption to the inflow of the people into the restricted space,” said Haghani, a senior lecturer at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering of the University of New South Wales in Australia. 

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said at a briefing with foreign reporters Tuesday that the lack of sufficient crowd management may have caused the incident. In parliament, Minister of Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min expressed his “sincere apologies to the public over the incident”.

President Yoon, who put in place a week-long mourning period soon after the deaths, called on the government to come up with crowd control systems for events like the Halloween festivities in Itaewon that don’t have any specific organizer but draw masses of people. 

Most of the victims were in their 20s and 30s, and 101 women were among the dead. At least 26 foreigners were killed. Maeil, a South Korean business newspaper, said it was the biggest loss of life among foreigners in the country since 2007, when a fire at an immigration office killed nine people.

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