On the evening of October 29, 2022, a traditional Celtic celebration supposedly to welcome the harvest at the end of summer, was turned into a nightmare. A frightening horde of people in mayhem made the Halloween festivities in Itaewon, the killing field of at least 156 people and wounding at least 172 more.
The Itaewon tragedy is the most dreadful catastrophe in South Korea since the sinking of MV Sewol in 2014. It is also the biggest mass casualty incident in Seoul after the 1995 gruesome wreckage of the Sampoong Department Store.
Many heads of state all over the world sent their expressions of sympathy, unity, and assistance. US President Joe Biden expressed his grief for the people of the Republic of Korea and wished all those who were injured a swift recovery.
Russian President Vladimir Putin articulated his commiserations to the victims and hoped for the well-being of survivors. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reacted that he was stunned and intensely distressed by the loss of many lives.
Meanwhile, China’s president Xi Jinping sent condolences to the victims through a letter. Other leaders, from Canada, Britain, the Vatican, Norway, India, Vietnam, and Italy, also expressed their compassion for the people of South Korea.
With this shower of kindness, the people of Seoul and the local government are all grateful. But as the saying goes, “the damage has been done,” and lives have been lost forever. The families that lost a loved one on that fateful night know they will never see their beloved ever again. The painful memories in their hearts will live on.
Itaewon Crush Revisited
Situated in central Seoul, the Itaewon district is a famous location for entertainment get-togethers and nightlife because of its numerous clubs, bistros, and bars.
The area is defined by extremely narrow streets and backstreets with no escape routes. The street where the terrible incident happened is connected to Itaewon-ro, a major street within the district; the lane slants upward from Itaewon-ro which in the end meets with another road.
This was what caused people to be crammed and strapped downward along the narrow section of the street. People at the top of the slope fell on those below. Since the path is just around 45 meters (150 ft) long and 3.2 meters (10 ft) wide, it obstructed emergency services that are trying to enter the street.
That night, almost 100,000 people attended the Halloween festivities in Itaewon. It was the first time that people attended events since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world.
How did it happen?
Itaewon has always been a favored location to have fun during Halloween. Some people from other countries even travel to Seoul for the merriments. But for the past two years, partying was subdued by pandemic restrictions such as limiting crowd size and the enforcement of face masks.
Thus, that Saturday night was the first Halloween since restrictions were lifted in the country. Guesthouses and ticketed events have been booked in advance, and hefty crowds were being expected.
Before the frightful incident, eyewitnesses told CNN that there was very little – if any – crowd control even before the mass of people turned heavy. Many videos and photos posted on social media showed people jam-packed, standing shoulder to shoulder in the narrow lane.
Among the bystanders, one said that it took a little while for anyone to grasp what was going on or that something was wrong since people’s fearful cries competed with the deafening music from nearby clubs and bars.
Additionally, since the throng of people in that area were all in Halloween costumes, it added to the general sense of confusion and disorder. One spectator talked about seeing a police officer yelling at the height of the chaos – but many people present took him as just another partygoer wearing a costume.
Another witness interviewed by CNN named Suah Cho, 23, described walking through an alley when “suddenly, some people started pushing each other, and people were screaming.” According to this witness, the screaming continued for 15 minutes, and everyone was panicking.
In her depiction of the scenario, she said that “Some people were going forward and some people were going backward, and then just they were pushing each other.” She was able to escape into a building along the alley, where she watched the tragedy with all its gruesome details. She was told by some people that “people were climbing the building to survive.”
Indifferent but sorry?
Local authorities got the first batch of emergency calls of people being “buried” in crowds at 10:24 p.m. As the news broke out, it was also reported that several individuals had “cardiac arrest,” while others reportedly had “difficulty breathing.”
Lee Sang-min, Seoul’s interior and safety minister, said that “a considerable number of police and security forces” have been deployed to another area of Seoul that night to deal with some ongoing protests.
Cho, the 23-year-old who bolted from the crush, said she didn’t see any police officer or local official attempting to control the crowd.
And while the government has initiated an inquiry into the disaster and vowed to carry out new measures so that similar incidents can be prevented from happening again, hundreds of questions have surfaced on why such a catastrophe could have happened in the first place.
South Korea’s police chief admitted that their emergency response to the Itaewon crush was “inadequate” – the first acknowledgment from officials that they did not do enough to prevent it.
Reports have it that the police received several calls before the incident, alerting them to the gravity of the situation, yet, the speedy response necessary for the such situation was absent.
Seoul police reportedly confided to BBC that the first call to South Korea’s emergency number came at 18:34 local time – hours before the deadly crush started and that there were 10 more calls over the next three-and-a-half hours.
The question then is – what was the police thinking?
Amidst mounting demands for accountability, Yoon Hee-keun said he felt “limitless responsibility about public safety” over what happened. On the other hand, Interior Minister Lee Sang-min expressed regret and apologized for the incident that killed 156 people and injured 152 others.
In a National Assembly meeting, Interior Minister Lee Sang-min made an apology to citizens. “It is very sad for me as a father who has a son and daughter… it is difficult to express in words how unreal this situation is, and it is difficult to accept this situation,” he said.
A few years from now, this fatal incident will be buried in the pages of South
Korean history. In fact, the thousands of Koreans who witnessed the terror that Saturday night, may also forget as the years pass. However, will those who lost their loved ones ever forget? Can they move on? Only time will tell.
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