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Fact-checking some of the claims about Itaewon disaster

A police officer stands on the street behind Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon on Tuesday where the deadly crowd crush occurred on Saturday night. (Yonhap)
A police officer stands on the street behind Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon on Tuesday where the deadly crowd crush occurred on Saturday night. (Yonhap)

In the aftermath of the deadly Itaewon crowd crush on Saturday, social media quickly filled with videos and posts, some purportedly from eyewitnesses.

But unsubstantiated claims also emerged and spread. The joint investigation by police and the National Forensic Service has begun into the cause of the incident.

Here is what we know so far.

Was it a stampede or a crowd crush?

The tragic incident has been described as a “stampede,” “crowd crush” or “crowd surge” by the media. Crowd crush is the most accurate way to describe what happened in Itaewon on Saturday because stampede usually refers to a situation where people are rushing in fear or excitement in the same direction – a large crowd coming out of a stadium for example.

Though investigations into the cause of the incident are still ongoing, video footage and eyewitness accounts show fatalities occurred when a massive crowd got trapped in a narrow, sloped alleyway that connects the main street that the Itaewon Station subway exit is located and the nightlife district up the hill.

How big was the crowd?

In a briefing on Sunday, Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min said some 130,000 people were in Itaewon to celebrate Halloween on Saturday night, up 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

The figure appears to be based on the number of passengers who traveled to and from Itaewon subway station that day. According to Seoul Metro, however, the figure only gives a rough idea of the crowd size.

With some travelers using the nearby Noksapyeong Station and other means of transport, the actual number could be higher.

Leading up to Halloween weekend, Seoul Yongsan Police Station said “some 100,000 people” would travel to Itaewon for the annual celebration.

How many police officers were in Itaewon?

Police said 137 police officers were dispatched to the nightlife district on Saturday.

When broken down by the role, however, only 58 police officers were in uniform while 79 were undercover and assigned to dealing with crimes such as drug offenses, MBC reported.

During the pre-pandemic years, between 2017 and 2019, 37 to 90 officers were dispatched to the neighborhood on Halloween weekend, police say.

Police data, however, does not count the number of conscripted policemen dispatched.

“Last year, there were 85 police officers and three mobile units (of conscripted policemen). This year, there were only 137 police officers and not a single mobile unit dispatched,” said spokesperson Lim O-kyeong for the Democratic Party of Korea in a briefing on Tuesday.

Did a ‘man wearing bunny ears’ push the crowd?

Social media posts and videos claiming that a man wearing bunny ears pushed the crowd from behind on the downhill where the fatal crowd crush happened went viral over the weekend.

Some people even tracked down the man online, which prompted the man to share what he claimed was proof of him not being present at the scene at the time of the disaster. The image he posted on his Instagram purportedly shows the time he left Itaewon by subway.

Speaking to Chosun Ilbo, the man denied pushing people.

Investigations into the cause of the incident are still ongoing.

Were emergency alerts sent in English?

The Ministry of the Interior and Safety said all the emergency alerts sent out during the night of Saturday were translated to English on the Emergency Ready App for those who set their location as Yongsan District.

But many foreigners who do not speak Korean without the app were only sent Korean messages, left wondering what they meant.

The first message alerting people of the incident outside Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon was sent by the Seoul Metropolitan Government at 11:55 p.m.

In a separate alert at 12:11 a.m, Yongsan District Office told people to refrain from visiting Itaewon. At 12:51 a.m, the city government told people to head home.

In 2021, the city government of Gyeongju began sending emergency alert texts in both Korean and English for local residents with poor Korean skills in an effort to better inform them in case of an emergency.



By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)
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