Itaewon survivor stuck in crush for over an hour

Yonhap / Reuters
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol visits a memorial altar in Seoul on Friday.

SEOUL — One week after the deadly Itaewon Halloween crush, a clearer picture is starting to emerge about the tragedy that claimed 156 lives and injured 190 people.

“Don’t close your eyes. Focus on breathing. We have to survive,” a 28-year-old from Incheon recalled yelling at his wife when they were stuck among the revelers in the Itaewon entertainment district on Oct. 29.

The man said people were crammed around him on all sides so tightly that his feet were off the ground and he was effectively being carried along by the crowd. His 33-year-old wife appeared to be on the verge of losing consciousness. A person near him whose eyes were closed and whose face had turned purple was probably dead, he recalled.

The deadly crush occurred on a 40-meter-long sloping alley that is about 3.2 meters wide.

The couple, who were in the area for the Halloween festivities, were trying to walk up the alley but got stuck in the crowd as the horror unfolded.

“Don’t push,” the man screamed, as crowds surged from the opposite direction. Shortly after, people in the middle of the alley started losing consciousness and collapsing onto others around them.

The casualties were concentrated in the middle of the passageway where more than 300 people were crammed in an area of about 18 square meters.

The man said he called his mother on the phone, thinking he was about to die.

The couple had been stuck in the alley for about 100 minutes when emergency service personnel eventually led them to safety. The man no longer had shoes on, but he said he kept walking to get as far away from the site as possible.

“I was terrified,” the man said. The ordeal has left his wife scared of crowds, and she has been reluctant to even use the subway.

“If the police had controlled the crowd properly, the tragedy wouldn’t have occurred,” said a man whose sister died in the accident.

With its popular cafes and bars, the Itaewon district is usually filled with Halloween revelers at the end of October.

COVID-19 restrictions had just been lifted, and more than 100,000 people were expected to be in the area on Oct. 29. But there was no requirement for a security plan under South Korean guidelines, as no official Halloween event had been planned.

South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo acknowledged that there was a lack of “institutional support and systematic efforts” for crowd control.

Accusations have largely been directed at the police.

Several calls were made to emergency services over a four-hour period leading up to the tragedy, but the police failed to respond appropriately.

According to South Korean media, the Seoul Metropolitan Police official in charge of emergency responses might have been away from her desk for about 90 minutes from about 10:15 p.m., as the tragedy was unfolding.

Illegal terraces at eateries on an adjacent street have also been cited as factors that might have contributed to the deadly crush, as the structures made the street narrower.