South Korean police admit failures in preventing Seoul crowd crush that killed 156 people

A man weeps as he pays tribute to victims following Saturday night's Halloween crowd crush in Seoul.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
A man weeps as he pays tribute to victims following Saturday night's Halloween crowd crush in Seoul. Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

South Korean officials have admitted responsibility for failing to prevent and respond to a crowd crush that killed more than 150 people.

The disaster happened during a Halloween parade in the nightlife district of Itaewon in Seoul on Saturday night, with the current death toll at 156 people.

A further 151 others were injured, with concerns the death toll may still rise, as 29 of the injured are in a serious condition.

Witnesses to the crush described people falling "like dominoes" on one another, suffering severe breathing difficulties and falling unconscious.

The government is facing growing public scrutiny over whether the crush could have been prevented and who should take responsibility for the country's worst disaster since 2014.

A South Korean army soldier pays tribute to victims of the deadly accident in Seoul. Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

An initial police investigation found there were many urgent calls telling authorities about a dangerous crowd gathering in the narrow downhill alley.

National Police Chief Yoon Hee Keun said police officers who received the calls failed to handle them effectively.

“I feel a heavy responsibility [for the disaster] as the head of one of the related government offices,” Yoon said in a televised news conference.

“Police will do their best to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.”

Yoon said an internal probe has been launched into the handling of the disaster.

Most of the dead were in their 20s and 30s, and about two-thirds were women.

The dead included around 26 foreign nationals, with two Americans and a K-Pop star among the victims named on Monday.

Anne Gieske has been named as one of the victims of the Seoul Halloween parade crush which killed 156 people. Credit: Anne Gieske/Instagram

South Korea’s interior minister, emergency office chief and Seoul's mayor all offered public apologies.

During a Cabinet council meeting on Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol admitted that South Korea lacks research on crowd management.

The crowd crush is the country's deadliest disaster since a 2014 ferry sinking that killed 304 people and exposed inadequate safety rules and regulatory failures.

The weekend's crush has raised public questions about what South Korea has done since then to prevent human-made disasters.

Police said they had sent 137 officers to maintain order during the Halloween festivities on Saturday, more than the 34-90 officers mobilised in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before the pandemic.

But some observers questioned whether the 137 officers were enough to handle the estimated 100,000 people gathered on Saturday in Itaewon.

Police acknowledged that the 137 officers dispatched to Itaewon were mostly assigned to monitor crime, with a focus on drug use, not crowd control.

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