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[Editorial] Deadly crush in Itaewon

Lethal Halloween crowd surge raises questions about public security in Korea

The Itaewon neighborhood in Seoul, well known for clubs, nightlife and Halloween festivities, turned into a terrible disaster zone late Saturday, as a sudden crowd surge in a narrow alley left 154 people dead and 149 injured as of Monday afternoon.

The tragedy took place as thousands of people were packed into the alley, which measures only 4 meters wide and slopes downward. People got pushed and dragged, with victims being crushed or suffocated to death.

Rescue efforts were desperately made to save as many people as possible, with first responders performing CPR on people lying unconscious on the street.

There were too many casualties, especially for a nation that still has painful memories about massive tragedies such as the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014.

Most of the victims were in their 20s and 30s, who took to the streets to enjoy the Halloween festivities after two years of pandemic-linked restrictions. Among those killed were 98 women, suggesting that they were more vulnerable to the lethal physical pressure as the crowd pushed each other in the alley without knowing what would happen. And 26 foreign nationals died in the crush, marking the biggest number among foreign-related local incidents, according to authorities.

The tragedy put the entire nation in deep shock and sadness. It also raised many questions about whether the disaster could have been prevented in the first place. It is widely known the Itaewon district draws a huge number of crowds during the Halloween season. Given that more people were expected to gather in the district this year, more police forces deployed in Itaewon may have been able to do proper crowd control, thereby preventing the huge crowd from squeezing into the tight alley.

But Interior Minister Lee Sang-min claimed Sunday that the crowd was not so big as to warrant a special concern, so the incident could not have been prevented by deploying more police officers.

In fact, on Saturday, there was no specific local organization or company that drew the crowd into the alley, or the Itaewon neighborhood in general. Experts pointed out that security holes were inevitable since it was a spontaneous street festival.

But it is still regrettable that authorities did not pay enough attention to public security for events that involve large gatherings. For instance, when the Itaewon Global Village Festival was held Oct. 15-16, police controlled the traffic into the neighborhood and did crowd control so that people were led to move in a single direction to prevent accidents. Unfortunately, the same measure was not taken for the Itaewon surge on Saturday.

Some critics claimed that emergency vehicles and rescue workers could not get into the site in time due to traffic congestion, leaving the fundamental issue of what happens when an emergency situation breaks out in crowded places unresolved.

Besides, what angered many citizens was the footage of thoughtless people singing and dancing as rescue workers were trying to revive people nearby. Graphic photos and videos showing dead bodies -- as well as some callous people eager to record the site -- also circulated on social media. Hate comments also erupted online over the incident, fueling unfiltered anger and mistrust among people.

Such irresponsible acts and sharing of unfiltered video clips and photos are not only despicable, but also inhumane in a way that breaks the hearts of the bereaved and the public alike.

President Yoon Suk-yeol on Sunday declared a period of national mourning that would run through Nov. 5. But the aftermath of the deadly crowd crush is expected to last for a far longer period of time, as it will take a long time for those directly affected to heal their wounds -- amid disheartening questions about whether proper safety steps were taken to protect citizens.



By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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