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Nation reels from Itaewon disaster

Citizens wait for condolences at a joint memorial altar for the death of the Itaewon accident at the Seoul City Hall Plaza in Jung-gu, Seoul on Monday morning. (Yonhap)
Citizens wait for condolences at a joint memorial altar for the death of the Itaewon accident at the Seoul City Hall Plaza in Jung-gu, Seoul on Monday morning. (Yonhap)

South Korea is wrapped in collective shock and grief from the unprecedented tragedy that took the lives of 155 people in a popular nightlife district in central Seoul.

The number of deaths continued to rise, reaching 155 people with more than 149 injured on Monday. Twenty-six foreigners were among the dead.

They are from Iran, China, the US, Japan, France, Australia, Norway, Vietnam, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, Austria and Russia.

The dead also included six teenagers.

Police said they had completed identifying all 155 people who died in the accident.

President Yoon Suk-yeol told officials to “set up a crowd accident management system” that can be applied to voluntary group events without organizers like the Itaewon disaster, according to Lee Jae-myung, a vice spokesperson of the presidential office.

Yoon also said, "There should be no shortage of funeral support and medical support for the wounded."

The government announced measures to support bereaved families on Monday. The government plans to pay up to 15 million won ($10,500) for all funeral expenses for each deceased person.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working with the government and foreign diplomatic missions in Korea to support foreign nationals injured in the incident, and the families of the deceased. Foreign Minister Park Jin said on Monday that the ministry is reviewing ways to ensure that foreign and Korean nationals affected by the incident receive equal support.

The government declared the Yongsan-gu area a special disaster area to deal with the damage caused by the Itaewon accident the day before, and designated a “national mourning period” until midnight on Nov. 5. This is the 11th time that a special disaster area has been declared for a social disaster, not a natural disaster.

To commemorate the tragic deaths, the Seoul Metropolitan Government opened up a joint memorial altar in Seoul Plaza on Monday. The altar will operate until Nov. 5. The official operating hours of the altar are from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and mourning can be done voluntarily even after operating hours.

On Monday, Yoon and first lady Kim Keon-hee visited the altar to pay tribute to those who died the night of the tragedy.

As the victims hailed from every corner of Korea, 17 memorial altars have been set up all around the country, including in Daegu, North Chungcheong Province; Gyeonggi Province; and Jeju Island.

Throughout the day on Monday, civilians visited the altars to express their condolences. In Seoul, nearby office workers visited the altars during lunchtime, creating long lines to enter.

The police said Monday that it would conduct a joint investigation with the National Forensic Service at the scene of the accident. The police plan to investigate nearby roads and shops around the alleyway next to the Hamilton Hotel, where the highest number of deaths occurred, and figure out how the crowds gathered there all at once. The police are also analyzing CCTV footage installed in the alley behind the hotel earlier and videos from the scene of the accident posted on social media.

The unprecedented incident occurred Saturday, as Itaewon was filled with more people than usual to enjoy the first “maskless” Halloween party since the pandemic. It is estimated that 130,000 people were in the area, 30,000 more people than three years ago.

The tragedy began as a massive crowd squeezed into a steep four-meter-wide alleyway next to Hamilton Hotel, became entangled and eventually began collapsing on top of each other. People in the back did not recognize the agony of the people in the front due to the loud noise and music and continued to try to shove their way through the crowd, saying, “Push, push.”

As rescue efforts were underway, photos and videos of people falling over, civilians performing CPR on lifeless bodies on the sidewalks and dead bodies covered in white cloths lined up in the street began to spread online, adding to the shock and sadness.

Mental health professionals and government officials have called on the public to refrain from spreading and viewing images of the incident.

The Korean Neuropsychiatric Association has advised against watching related footage repeatedly, saying "excessive and repeated viewing of field videos or news may adversely affect one's health.”

Professor Lee Hae-kook from the Catholic University of Korea said that continuous exposure to such images could lead to group depression or anxiety. “We've already experienced it during the Sewol ferry disaster and the coronavirus outbreak. We were affected and patients experiencing depression increased.”

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo urged people to refrain from expressing hate against casualties, spreading false information and sharing videos of the incident online via social media.



By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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