Seoul Crowd Disaster: I Have Walked That Street. Here's What Needs to be Done. Jeongmin Yoon, ESG Intern, American University.
A crowd surge accident occurred at a Halloween celebration around 10 p.m. on Saturday, October 29 in South Korea. The Itaewon disaster is believed to have been caused by increasing crowd pressure as people could not stop walking while being driven downhill (in terms of the local terrain). Most of the victims were in their 10s and 20s, with 155 deaths and 156 injuries.
Yongsan Police Station requested support from Seoul City Hall but did not receive a reply, this despite 112 reports that came in starting at 4 p.m. on the same day. Many of these were detailed reports: "It is on the verge of crushing, requesting control, and one-way traffic,". But the police did not respond quickly. Media reports suggesting the deployment of 200 police officers in Itaewon were disprove, and corrected to report only 136 police officers deployed, and they were sent to crack down on drug use.
When asked about reports that 136 people who were at the scene asked for support, the police department responded that they could not respond due to different tasks they were carrying out at the time, shifting the blame to the victims. From 8 o'clock, the frequency of reports on overcrowding in the alley increased and the content of these reports were alarming, but the police were not put into action. At the time, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said that 15 disaster medical teams were dispatched to the site after the accident, but the first medical staff appears to have been deployed at 11:10, an hour after initial death reports were received. Five medical teams were again dispatched at around 12:30, an hour later. For nearly two hours, 119 crew members and the public provided CPR. On that same day, however, 130,000 people exited the Itaewon Station. Everyone at the scene was afraid of the crowd and worried about the potential accident, but there were no measures to disperse the crowd, such as pausing exits at Itaewon Station, as Yongsan might have requested Seoul Metro. This was not requested.
After the accident, the Minister of Public Administration and Security shifted the blame to those who went to the festival, saying, "It was an accident that could not be prevented even with control personnel, and we have to think about whether there were any problems with the assembly itself." Recall, however, that the Itaewon Halloween Festival was promoted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government to revitalize the local commercial district. Still, I wonder if it is the community's fault, not the government and police authorities' responsibility.
I think a safety net should be established in order to avoid such a disaster. First, the road on which the accident took place needs to be widened. The road is very narrow and it leads downhill. I have been there. It goes from just above the Hamilton Hotel after exiting Itaewon Station. I think accidents will be minimized by enlarging the minimum width of the declining road in reorganizing the old city center.
Secondly, I think we should deploy police personnel to provide pedestrian and crowd control using police lines and barricades on the roadside in preparation for events that will attract more than 100,000 people. This should be carried out in a way that organizes and guides the flow of the crowd, using the Japanese way, rather than compulsory security like Chinese public security. Also, I wondered what it would have been like if the road was designated as a one-way street on a narrow road to effectively.
Thirdly, we need to improve citizenship. As population density increases, citizens must better protect themselves. After the COVID-19 lockdown, the passion of young friends who wanted to socialize made them come to Itaewon. It's really heartbreaking, but I thought we had a better sense of safety. I think you've all felt the experience of pushing and shoving in Seoul when you're always crowded at subway/bus events. This has to change. If it's dense and narrow, you don't have to be there, and I think you need to have that consciousness top of mind.
Lastly, CCTV and big data systems should be utilized. There is a system that can predict crowd size and danger using CCTV and big data technology. Personally, I'm wary of the Big Brother era, but despite that, if we had a system that could anticipate places that are likely to be crowded in advance and guide citizens to the current danger, we could effectively cope with the possibility of a disaster. I think there was a bigger tragedy because we couldn't fully understand the danger inherent in the situation. At least if there was a control tower that guided people at the scene with a loudspeaker, I don't think there would have been a problem with recognizing the danger of the situation.
The State exists to protect its people. Halloween comes every year, until now, without accidents. Just 15 days ago, prior to this accident, a festival took place where even more people gathered, but no deaths occurred. During the previous Halloween period, many police and civil servants were mobilized to maintain order. By passing on the right, many people were prevented from congesting and narrow alleys were redirected as one-way traffic. There have been no prior incidents during Halloween because traffic has been controlled and managed continuously, but this time, the government, Seoul, and Yongsan-gu did nothing, resulting in 155 deaths. Why on earth does a nation exist if a nation doesn't do its job protecting the people when they gather? A large crowd, of course, becomes crowded and disorderly. The state exists to prevent such disorder, but this time it failed to play a role in protecting the public. Did I miss something? Is there a war or something? 155 deaths in a day is not even common in wars. Why is it not the responsibility of the state when the state exists to prevent such accidents?
Article 34 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea
"The state shall endeavor to prevent disasters and protect its people from such dangers."