Recap of the Itaewon Stampede in Seoul: An Avoidable Disaster

  Shoes, clothes, bags, mobile phones, credit cards… Ordinary daily necessities covered a large stadium in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Some were torn to pieces, and some were stained with blood. They weighed 1.5 tons in total, and were picked up by hundreds of search and rescue personnel since the evening of October 29 and placed in the “Itaewon Accident Lost and Found Office”.
  It was on the night of October 29 that a Halloween carnival turned into the worst stampede in Korean history in the famous Itaewon business district in Seoul. As of the afternoon of November 1 local time, 156 people were killed in the incident, including 4 Chinese citizens. After reviewing the whole process of the Itaewon incident in detail based on the progress of the official investigation, some security experts pointed out that South Korean President Yoon Seok-yue’s statement in the early morning of October 30 was accurate: this is a tragedy that should not have happened, and it can even be said that “absolutely can be avoided”.
  On November 1, a 21-year-old survivor limped to the Yongsan District Gymnasium in search of a handbag he had left at the scene. On that tragic night two days ago, her lower body was pinned down by the falling crowd and she couldn’t move. Driven by her survival instinct, she desperately moved her upper body, and was finally able to escape. She found her almost crushed small bag, which was covered with traces of escape and struggle.
  ”I don’t know when I left it, I just wanted to survive,” she said.
How did the “dead business circle” come about?

  On the evening of October 29, Yang Cheng, a Chinese student studying abroad, set off with his friends to participate in Halloween activities in the Itaewon business district. This is an ordinary choice. In 2021, Halloween in Itaewon will attract more than 80,000 tourists, and Yang Cheng is one of them. He recalled to “China News Weekly” that the event was very well organized, but everyone was still wearing masks at that time.
  In April this year, as the South Korean government lifted social distancing restrictions, Itaewon once again became a hot spot for young people to check in and spend. Statistics released by the “Korea Economic Daily” on October 21 stated that since April, offline consumption here has “surged every month”, and consumers in their 20s are the main contributors to the growth.
  On the west side of the Hamilton Hotel in the core area of ​​Itaewon, in a staggered alley, yellow, yellow, green and green light boxes have already been turned on, welcoming the first “Halloween without masks” in three years. The alley with a width of only 3.2 meters is occupied on both sides by the temporary fence of the hotel and the sundries of the light boxes of the merchants, making it appear even narrower. This is an everyday scene in Itaewon, and it has been since the Hamilton Hotel was built in the 1970s.
  In 2002, the South Korean government issued a construction restriction standard that buildings and roads must maintain a “certain distance”, and the narrow streets and alleys of Itaewon could not meet the standard. But the new regulations do not go back to the past, and this is the uniqueness of Itaewon: Among the “eight major business districts” in Seoul, it completely retains the style of the old commercial street that emerged around the US garrison half a century ago. Some scholars pointed out that in the “lane business district”, the “integrity and authenticity” brought about by barbaric growth is its core competitiveness.
  At around 21:00 on October 29, Yang Cheng and his friends arrived in Itaewon. At that time, it was already “extremely crowded, being pushed away by the flow of people, and there were constant scolding at the scene”. He felt a little tight in his chest, so he decided to come out of the main street ahead of time. As soon as he walked to another alley, he heard the sound of an ambulance.
  Opinions vary as to how the tragedy occurred. According to eyewitnesses, at around 10 pm on October 29, someone fell while passing the alley on the west side of the Hamilton Hotel, and the followers “stacked arhats” one after another, causing an accident; there are also rumors on social media that “watching stars” or “Club handing out drug candy” leads to disaster. But Keith Steele, a professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in the United Kingdom, told China News Weekly that there is only one real reason: there are too many people in Itaewon.
  Steele has more than 30 years of experience in crowd gathering safety management, and has participated in ensuring the crowd gathering safety of major public events such as the Sydney, Beijing, and London Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games, and William Kate’s wedding. In his view, the Itaewon tragedy is no different from the stampedes that have occurred around the world in the past ten years or so. According to official data, more than 130,000 tourists went to Itaewon like Yang Cheng that night. In the alley where the stampede happened, more than 300 people were squeezed into a central area of ​​18 square meters, far exceeding the critical value of “progressive crowd collapse”: 4 to 5 people per square meter.
  ”Any space environment that reaches such a crowded level has a high probability of causing casualties.” Steele said, “It doesn’t need a lot of force to cause a disaster, and a few fallen people are enough to magnify the danger to the present.” Such a lethal level.” Most of the 156 victims were in the crowd of 18 square meters. Witnesses said that the dense crowd was piled on top of each other, “like a graveyard”. People gradually lost consciousness, were trampled, or suffocated in the crowded crowd.
  The narrow alleys and height gaps in Itaewon seem to be the “original sin”. However, Steele pointed out that this does not mean that Itaewon is necessarily a “death trap,” but rather that it has a lower capacity than other public spaces. The key is to effectively monitor the flow of people to assess the danger.
  Time goes back to October 27. The Yongsan District Government of Seoul, where the Itaewon business district is located, held the “Emergency Countermeasures Meeting for Halloween”, but did not mention safety management measures for large-scale crowd gatherings. Control is the focus of attention. Many Seoulites still remember that in May 2020, a mass infection of the new crown epidemic occurred in Itaewon nightclubs. The city government was accused of failing to effectively supervise entertainment venues, resulting in 277 people being diagnosed and the epidemic spreading across the country.
  On October 28, some citizens claimed on social media that someone was pushed down in the Itaewon area that night. Fortunately, the crowd stopped moving and no casualties were caused. According to Lee Sang-min, Minister of the Interior and Security of South Korea, the response measures deployed by the police are to increase the number of people who will go to the scene to maintain order on the 29th from 100 in 2021 to 130. Other than that, no further measures were introduced. Some officials later revealed to the media that during the previous large-scale events in Itaewon, the police had never restricted the entry and exit of people, “there was no cordon or one-way street.”
  But until now, disaster has not been inevitable. From 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. on October 29, the Seoul police received about 100 calls to the police complaining that the Itaewon business district was “overcrowded, difficult to breathe, and needed to be evacuated.” When Yang Cheng and his friends entered the venue, the Seoul police were asking the subway company whether the subway could stop at Itaewon Station. But like the previous day, no measures were actually implemented.
  Steele pointed out that the overcrowding was fully on display in the calls that were made before the tragedy. If the police were aware of the seriousness of the problem at the time, there were actually wider roads and a large public refuge space such as a subway station on the south side of the alley where the incident occurred, preventing the flow of people from the south from entering the alley and diverting the flow of people through the external space, thereby avoiding The death occurred, and it was still possible in the hours before the incident.

  ”In a specific situation, there may be multiple solutions. The key is that you need to know the possibility of risk and recognize the enormous pressure caused by the surge of people.” Steele said, “But before a disaster occurs, people often They don’t realize that they need to know this.” The
  Itaewon tragedy was also not “a cold day”. The public data platform of Seoul City has not released the past passenger flow data of Itaewon business district. Only Korean scholars have used mobile phone base station data to estimate that the daily passenger flow of Itaewon core business district was 70,000 before the epidemic. about. “It’s like when the current density exceeds the safe limit, the risk of failure is high, but it doesn’t mean that the failure will definitely happen.” Steele said, “We haven’t seen the official data yet, but if the epidemic occurs before The flow of people in the Itaewon business district can reach such a high density, so it can only be said that there was no tragedy here before, which is probabilistic, and it does not mean that there was no risk here before.”
Why is rescue so desperate?

  At around 10:00 p.m. on October 29, as several people fell down suddenly, cries flooded the alley on the west side of the Hamilton Hotel. Among the crowd at the center of the tragedy were Korean idol stars, Japanese models, tourists and students from many countries, teachers from special education schools, men and women in love, and underage students. Police later picked up 256 pairs of shoes at the scene. They also collected a torn handbag revealing utility bills, credit card receipts, cosmetics and face masks.
  Ordinary life was terminated at that moment. According to Steele, once a stampede occurs, ordinary people have little chance of saving themselves. In more than half of the population, the instinctive reaction would be to struggle to get back up, which resulted in “entanglement” between the fallen and the standing, advancing and stagnant people. “With crushing and suffocation, the blood supply to the brain is cut off, and the real rescue time is only 4 to 6 minutes from this point to complete loss of consciousness. So one commonality of such stampedes is that the vast majority of victims die. for suffocation, not trauma”.
  A popular science article mentions that when you find that a crowd is coming towards your walking direction, you should immediately avoid it and don’t run to avoid falling. If there are shops, cafes and other places where you can temporarily hide on the roadside, you can take shelter temporarily. However, eyewitnesses pointed out that when someone tried to escape from a nearby nightclub, the boss refused to open the door.
  The carnival crowd outside the center has not yet realized the distance from death. A witness recalled that she was still being pushed and pushed by the crowd behind her until she entered the alley where the incident occurred. She tripped and tripped multiple times, stepping on “unidentified objects and other people’s feet”. Hand in hand with friends, they escaped.
  Less than an hour after the disaster, Itaewon opened traffic control and personnel control. More than 800 rescuers rushed to the scene, but were blocked by the lively crowd. Some tourists thought the sudden increase in police and firefighters was part of Halloween costumes, and continued to sing and revel near the rescuers. Yang Cheng’s friend told him that there were many people shouting for help, but it was very chaotic, and it would take “at least ten minutes” to pull them out.
  The process of being sent to the hospital for emergency treatment was not smooth. More than 80 wounded were transferred to Suncheon Hyang University Seoul Hospital for treatment. Although this hospital is only 1 km away from the incident site, it is the most convenient, but there are only 20 emergency beds. Some people in the medical and health circles questioned that if rescue organizations could view and share the status of medical institutions in real time, or perform effective classification in on-site emergency centers, the wounded could have been arranged more dispersedly, and the seriously injured among them could have received more timely and adequate rescue .
  In the end, the Itaewon stampede became the second largest public disaster since the founding of South Korea, second only to the sinking of the “Shiyue” ship in April 2014. After the sinking of the “Shiyue” ship that killed more than 300 people, several government departments were exposed to a series of problems such as ineffective supervision, delay in rescue, mutual shirk responsibility, and release of false news. The then South Korean President Park Geun-hye also became the target of public criticism. Today, the Itaewon incident has once again aroused Korean people’s concerns about public governance. In this context, South Korean Minister of the Interior and Security Lee Sang-min said earlier that the tragedy in Itaewon “cannot be prevented or avoided by increasing the number of police officers”.
  Steele believes that for similar incidents, the response of South Korean rescuers has been considered prompt and professional. The failure to clear the scene quickly may have reasons, such as rescuers needing the public to help transfer “more wounded than the total number of rescuers.”
  ”We (rescuers) always hope that the public will respond to our needs. Involving the public may not be the best solution, but it makes sense if it speeds up the rescue process,” Steele said. Desperately, although help came quickly, it was too late. By the time the first responders arrived on the scene, there had been a large number of deaths.”
How to prevent the tragedy from repeating itself?

  From the second day after the tragedy, nearly 500 South Korean government officials, police officers, experts from the National Forensic Hospital and evidence investigators gathered in the Itaewon business district. As of November 1, the Investigation Headquarters has questioned dozens of witnesses and reviewed more than 50 on-site surveillance videos. However, due to mixed eyewitness accounts, it is not yet possible to confirm the reason for the crowd gathering in the alley next to the Hamilton Hotel. As of 18:00 on November 1, local time, investigations are ongoing on the site managers, the citizens who “pushed others”, and the security guards who prevented the fleeing crowd from entering the bar. However, no specific cases of criminal charges have been confirmed.
  South Korean media noticed that the investigation of the Itaewon stampede was different from the past. In the sinking of the Xihai ferry in 1993, the collapse of Sanfeng Department Store in 1995, and the sinking of the “Shiyue” ship in 2014, prosecutors who were semi-independent of the government immediately intervened and led the investigation. It will be available within a month. But this time, the investigative headquarters was formed under the direct order of South Korean President Yoon Seok-yue, who was a former prosecutor, and is composed of government personnel such as the police department.
  Kwon Ki-sik, chairman of the Korea-China Friendship Cities Association, who was once the director of the National Affairs Operation Office of the Blue House, told China News Weekly that the investigation of such urban safety accidents is usually not carried out by the presidential office, “but this accident is very serious, so it will be led by the presidential office investigation, and it will take time to draw conclusions.”
  It is worth noting that after the sinking of the “Shiyue” ship, the then South Korean President Park Geun-hye did not take command of the rescue and investigation immediately, which aroused widespread public criticism. Since the inauguration of current President Yoon Suk-yue in May this year, due to the economic downturn and the tense situation on the peninsula, the approval rating has continued to decline, which is lower than the first-year approval rating of previous presidents since South Korea’s democratization.
  Starting from the night of the haircut, Yin Xiyue, who may have learned the lessons of his predecessors, sat in the presidential office, held emergency coordination meetings, and personally deployed the dispatch of medical forces and coordinating beds to Itaewon. In his emergency speech in the early hours of October 30, he also assured the public that the cause of the accident would be thoroughly investigated and that similar accidents would not recur in the future. Group activities without an organizer also need to establish a safety management system.” Halloween activities across South Korea were also urgently suspended.
  Steele has been involved in forensic investigations of numerous crowd safety incidents around the world. In his view, it is not easy for Yin Xiyue to come up with survey results that satisfy the public. Steele introduced that after the death and injury confirmation and scene cleaning are completed, the investigators will analyze the area, history, crowd dynamics, local infrastructure and transportation system of the incident space, with the purpose of defining the upper limit of the safe capacity of the area. how many. “The general logic of the investigation of the stampede is: find the critical value, find the ‘point’ out of control, and finally find the responsible party.”

  In the Itaewon stampede, the most difficult thing to define is the responsible party: “Itaewon business district” is a loose concept of streets and alleys, and there was no unified organizer for the Halloween event that night. After the 2011 Umyeon Mountain landslide that killed 60 people in Seoul, the Seoul District Court ruled that the government of Seocho District, Seoul, where Umyeon Mountain is located, should bear civil liability for compensation because “if the landslide warning and evacuation broadcast are issued in time, the disaster will be destroyed.” could have been avoided”.
  The situation in Itaewon is more complicated than the Umyeonsan incident. On the one hand, the local government, the police, the subway company, the shops along the street, and even individual citizens are all the “links” that eventually triggered the disaster. It is difficult to establish a direct causal relationship between one party and the 156 people killed. On the other hand, Steele pointed out that the absence of specific local legislation may allow the most critical responsible parties to escape legal sanctions. At present, the Seoul District Court has stated that in view of the complexity of the Itaewon incident, “it is impossible to predict the (investigation, prosecution, judgment) results.”
  For the international community, what deserves more attention is that the tragedy in Itaewon is not an isolated case. The most tragic stampede in human history occurred in Mecca in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims died due to stampede or suffocation. On October 1, 2022, a football match in Indonesia led to one of the worst stampede tragedies in football history, killing 132 people and injuring 583. Therefore, the Itaewon incident is the second serious stampede in the world within a month.
  Looking back at the serious stampede incidents that have occurred in the past ten years, not only developing countries and regions have occurred, but also developed countries such as Germany, the United States, and Italy. On July 24, 2010, during the Love Parade Music Festival in Germany, a stampede occurred on a crowded slope, killing more than 20 people and injuring more than 600. During the UEFA Champions League final in June 2017, a stampede caused by crowd panic occurred in the center of Turin, Italy. Three people were killed and thousands were injured. On November 5, 2021, 10 people were killed and more than 300 injured in a stampede at the “Astronomical World” music festival in Houston, USA.
  Steele said frankly that it is not difficult to carry out crowd risk training and build a crowd safety monitoring system in practice, but people often do not realize that “crowding” is a problem that needs attention before a disaster occurs. He is often asked: Since the probability of death due to overcrowding is small, why should we spend so much effort to prevent it?
  Another lesson from Itaewon is the training of “people”. Many eyewitnesses told the media that crowds pushed and shoved to exacerbate the congestion at the scene of the accident, and when someone tried to escape from a nearby nightclub, the nightclub operator refused to open the door.
  Steele pointed out that for specific environments such as sports fields, some countries have issued documents instructing the public on how to identify danger signals and escape, but few countries have issued guidance documents on the safety of people in the night economy and market crowds. The Ministry of Education of the South Korean government stated on October 31 that it will promote supplementary safety education in schools to prevent similar incidents as soon as possible. In the Itaewon stampede, six middle school students and three elementary and middle school teachers were confirmed dead.
  Steele also suggested that, for ordinary people, the best thing to do is to quickly move away from crowds if they feel overcrowded. Many times, if the crowd in front of you is already crowded, but at the same time it seems harmless. At this time, keep in mind: the risk of crowd gathering is probabilistic, but once a disaster occurs, there is almost no way to save yourself.
  ”In the stampede in Itaewon, etc., we always see the voice of the survivors: ‘I wanted to go in, but it’s too crowded, I can’t get in.’ They were lucky because they didn’t squeeze in in the end.” Steele said.

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