SEOUL, Oct 31 (Reuters) – Proper crowd and traffic control by South Korean authorities could have prevented or at least reduced the surge of Halloween partygoers in alleys that led to a crush and the death of 154 peoplesecurity experts said Monday.
The annual festivities in Seoul’s popular Itaewon nightlife area also had no central organizing entity, which meant that government authorities were not required to establish or enforce security protocols.
Authorities in Yongsan district, where Itaewon is located, discussed measures to prevent the use of illegal drugs and the spread of COVID-19 over the Halloween weekend, according to a press release from the district. However, there was no mention of crowd control.
On Saturday when the tragedy occurred, there were an estimated 100,000 people in Itaewon, an area known for its hills and narrow alleys. According to the Seoul Metro, some 81,573 people disembarked at the Itaewon subway station that day, up from 23,800 a week earlier and 35,950 on Friday.
But at the time there were only 137 police officers in Itaewon, the city of Seoul said.
By contrast, demonstrations by unions and supporters of President Yoon Suk-yeol that drew tens of thousands in Gwanghwamun in central Seoul on Saturday alone saw as many as 4,000 police deployed, a police official said. .
“Police are now working on a comprehensive analysis of the cause of the incident,” Home and Security Minister Lee Sang-min said on Monday.
“It is not appropriate to jump to conclusions before determining the exact cause, whether it was caused by a lack of policing or whether there is something we should fundamentally change for rallies and gatherings.”
President Yoon has called for a thorough investigation into the cause of the crush, as well as improvements to security measures that can be used for large gatherings where there is no set organizer.
While South Korea has a security manual for festivals expected to attract more than 1,000 people, the manual presupposes an organizing body in charge of security planning and soliciting government resources.
Just two weeks earlier, the Itaewon Global Village Festival, organized by a tourism association and sponsored by Seoul City and Yongsan District, had people in yellow vests directing the flow of movement and the main road was closed to car traffic.
But on Saturday, there were only thousands of stores open to the public, normal car traffic rules, and tens of thousands of young people eager to celebrate Halloween without major COVID restrictions for the first time since the pandemic.
“Just because it’s not called a ‘festival’ doesn’t mean there should be any difference in terms of disaster management,” said Paek Seung-joo, professor of fire and disaster protection at Korea Open Cyber University.
“Because there was no central authority, each arm of government just did what they usually do: the fire department prepared for fires and the police prepared for crime. There has to be a system where a local government takes the reins and cooperate with other authorities to prepare for the worst,” he said.
Moon Hyeon-cheol, a professor at Soongsil University’s Graduate School of Disaster Safety Management, said this type of crush had the potential to happen in any populous city.
“We need to take this tragedy and learn to prepare for the risk of a disaster,” he said.
Information from Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Soo-hyang Choi; Edited by Edwin Gibbs
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