• Washington Post

Crucial missteps led to tragically delayed rescue in a Seoul alley

REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
A woman holds a placard during a candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims of the crowd crush that happened during Halloween festivities, at Seoul City Hall Plaza, in Seoul, South Korea, November 5, 2022.
The placard reads: “We are commemorating the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush”.

For nearly four hours before people started dying during a Halloween celebration in Seoul’s Itaewon district, partygoers pleaded with police to divert the crowds that were packing World Food Street and pushing into a 16-foot-wide alley – a tight, sloping space where most of 158 lives would be lost in a gruesome crush.

And once that crush began, it took at least 26 minutes for emergency personnel to start effectively evacuating people. Some victims were trapped for more than an hour before rescuers reached them. The delays proved catastrophic.

A Washington Post analysis of more than 350 videos and photos, some obtained exclusively and many reviewed by experts at The Post’s request, found that multiple critical factors contributed to the tragedy and death toll in Itaewon on the night of Oct. 29.

The Post, which also scrutinized emergency call logs and interviewed dozens of witnesses, determined that the alley became dangerously crowded as early as 6:28 p.m. The first of at least 13 emergency calls came in minutes later to warn of escalating chaos, with people wedged in so tightly that there were already injuries.

At 10:08 p.m., those dynamics triggered the crush.

A few police officers and other individuals at the edge of the mayhem had been trying futilely to redirect the crowd, according to videos. At least 16 more emergency calls came in between 10:08 p.m. and 10:22 p.m., when video shows five officers struggling to pull out unconscious victims.

Yet it wasn’t until 10:39 p.m. that emergency personnel closed both ends of the alley – a lag of roughly half an hour that allowed foot traffic to continue into the area, hampered rescue efforts and undoubtedly increased the fatalities, according to the experts’ review of the materials. Another 11 minutes elapsed before police mounted a broad response, according to department records.

The number of lives ultimately lost exceeded those in recent crowd-surge disasters at an outdoor concert in Houston and a soccer stadium in Indonesia. Almost 200 people were hurt; as of Tuesday, at least eight were still hospitalized.

“This was the easiest scenario in terms of effectively overseeing crowd control and preventing accidents,” said Young Ook Kim, an expert on crowd movement and spatial layout and behavior at Sejong University in Seoul. “If you just go assess the site and discuss potential countermeasures, anyone who has the instincts and experience would have been able to foresee the situation.”

The genesis of the deadly crush

Halloween weekend in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in Seoul, typically draws tens of thousands of young people. Most of the raucous celebrations take place along World Food Street – a block of restaurants and bars – and the side alleys that connect it to one of Itaewon’s main thoroughfares.

With coronavirus restrictions lifted, local businesses were anticipating bigger crowds this year. “We plan to throw an epic Halloween party since it’s the first Halloween after coronavirus. Let’s party until the sun comes up,” one bar advertised.

The festivities were in full swing by 10 p.m. that Saturday, videos show, with throngs of costumed men and women making their way up and down World Food Street and into the narrow passageway just west of the Hamilton Hotel. A DJ party was scheduled to gear up at the 108 Hip Hop Lounge, which is in the alley.

Around 10:08 p.m., something shifted in the packed crowd in front of the club, video reviewed by the Post shows. People began screaming.

“This situation is extremely serious already,” noted Mark Breen, director of Safe Events, a company that specializes in safety planning for large-scale gatherings, who looked at videos provided by The Post. During the next 10 minutes, he saw evidence of crowd crush, a phenomenon that occurs when a crowd’s density crosses a critical threshold and its movement becomes almost fluid.

Kim, who also reviewed the alley videos, saw initial markers of the crush by 10:08 p.m., with some people squeezed so severely that they would have had trouble breathing.

Survivors Zara Lily, an English teacher, and Jinhyeong Yun, an ocean engineer, described what the scene felt like. “People were pushed onto each other, and there were many times where there was a wave of pushing which made people fall forwards and then back, just like ocean waves,” Lily wrote in a message from the couple’s joint Instagram account.

By 10:17 p.m., the experts agreed, the crush had taken over. Additional pressures at both ends of the alley only made it worse.

From World Food Street on the northern end, people continued turning in, unaware of what was happening. Video shows that the street itself was so congested at one point that a man tried to climb a sign on the back side of the Hamilton Hotel to escape. Meanwhile, on the alley’s southern end, partygoers on the main thoroughfare, as well as those just arriving from the Itaewon subway station, were pushing in, too.

Just steps from the Hip Hop club entrance, videos show people pressed hard in the crowd and wincing in pain. Many were visibly gasping for air. G. Keith Still, a visiting professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England, told The Post that in those panicked moments, people “could be dying on their feet.”

According to the Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, area businesses had asked the city days earlier to require subway trains to bypass Itaewon station over the weekend because of concerns about the volume of people who often exit there. The Seoul Transportation Corp. told The Post that it did not receive an official request. Experts said shutting down the closest exit to the alley would have alleviated some of the congestion on Oct. 29.

Failings in the emergency response

The most efficient way to alleviate a crowd crush or crowd collapse – the latter occurs when someone in the crowd falls and causes others to fall in turn, a human domino effect – is to relieve the intense pressure by removing people from the periphery as fast as possible, experts say. In Itaewon, that meant immediately evacuating people out both ends of the alley.

But The Post analysis of available video shows that it took between 26 and 31 minutes after the crush began for emergency personnel to start doing so.

By 10:22 p.m., people were already massed on top of each other at the most jammed point of the alley. The five officers on the scene had trouble reaching individuals and pulling them out given the weight of the crowd, available videos show. Meanwhile, a photo from a bird’s-eye perspective shows that foot traffic continued in from World Food Street, exacerbating the bottleneck.

Itaewon police Sgt. Kim Baek-gyeom realized something was wrong when he and two junior officers heard screams coming from the area as they responded to an unrelated call. He radioed for backup, then he and another officer ran to World Food Street to try to keep more people from entering the alley.

“There were so many people being pushed down from the [street], pressure continued to apply to the scene, making it even more difficult to evacuate people from the pile,” he told South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper.

Kim said he momentarily considered whether to race to his precinct for a megaphone, then decided the situation was too dire. His desperation as he begged everyone to turn around was captured in a video mash-up that has since gone viral.

“People are dying. Move back. Please cooperate,” he implored.

A small contingent of emergency workers was first able to clear the southern end of alley. Additional support and ambulances struggled to reach the site because of traffic along Itaewon-Ro, the main street, according to walkie-talkie transcripts.

“It’s too difficult to enter via vehicle. All responders travel via foot,” the response commander ordered at 10:29 p.m.

By 10:34 p.m., no emergency personnel had yet reached the northernmost section of the crush, videos show.

At 10:39 p.m., more than half an hour after the crush started, five firefighters and four police officers are finally visible in a video of the location. Subsequent video reveals how slowly the rescue progressed.

“Everyone needs to come to the back side,” a responder ordered via walkie-talkie at 10:56 p.m. “The number of cardiac arrests is sharply rising.”

A little more than five minutes later, videos show emergency crews evacuating the injured onto a still very crowded World Food Street.

Not until 11:22 p.m., more than an hour after the crush began, did rescuers manage to pull all the injured and unconscious from the alley and start to triage CPR on Itaewon-Ro and adjacent areas, the walkie-talkie logs show.

Though an investigation is ongoing, police have acknowledged that both their actions before the crush and their response as it unfolded were inadequate. Investigators have raided dozens of offices as part of their probe, including those of the national police chief, Seoul Metro headquarters and Yongsan Police Station.

A completely preventable disaster

Experts say the tragedy was preventable. On Halloween weekend 2021, revelers in Itaewon were assertively directed by uniformed police officers to make sure the crowds traveled in an orderly and distanced way as a part of coronavirus prevention efforts.

No such prevention plans were implemented this fall, the first Halloween celebration in three years without a coronavirus mask or distancing mandate. Law enforcement agencies instead dispatched 137 uniformed and plainclothes personnel on Oct. 29 for crime prevention, with an eye on drug use, sexual violence and petty crime. Thirty-two officers were available to handle on-site emergencies, according to National Police Agency data.

Police agencies in South Korea have robust training for crowd control and monitoring, given the frequency of demonstrations that draw tens of thousands of protesters and the nation’s history with military dictatorship, said Kim, the crowd expert at Sejong University.

The lack of prevention in Itaewon in late October partly reflects the country’s top-down culture for law enforcement. According to some police training experts in South Korea, lower-level officials have no incentive to prepare for potentially volatile events when laws or regulations don’t require it, or to suggest prevention plans not mandated in security manuals.

“Once this crush was well underway, there was probably very little that could have been done to prevent significant loss of life,” said Martyn Amos, a crowd expert and professor of computer and information sciences at Northumbria University in England. “The overriding aim of the authorities should have been to prevent it [from] happening in the first place.”