After Halloween disaster in Seoul, South Koreans question authorities’ preparedness


SEOUL — At first, the young woman felt rushed by the packed crowd as she slowly walked down a narrow alley in the South Korean capital, where she enjoyed Halloween festivities on Saturday night.

Then the compression became closer to crushing, and soon the bodies were pressing against her so hard that her feet no longer touched the ground. What the 23-year-old remembers next is being in a pile of people, her lungs flattened, her legs numb as she took shallow breaths. She remembers people screaming for help, then falling silent as the bodies around her went limp.

“I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to be next,'” said Juliana Velandia Santaella, a Mexican medical student who was pulled from the crowd by a man standing nearby. “I really thought I was going to die.”

On Sunday, those frenzied moments had given way to a procession of mourners bringing white flowers and candles to the scene, along with questions about how a celebration could have turned into a crowd crush that killed at least 153 people in one of the worst disasters of its kind in recent history.

As condolences poured in from around the world, South Korean officials said on Sunday they had identified almost all of the victims, including 20 foreign nationals from 10 different countries, including two from the United States, one of whom was aged 20 years. student from Marietta, Georgia, spending a semester abroad. Others came from Iran, Norway, Uzbekistan and China. The others were mostly young South Koreans in their 20s and 30s who had crowded into the narrow alleyways of a historic nightlife district known as Itaewon, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Health. Interior and Security.

Among the questions South Koreans are asking in the aftermath of the disaster is why public security officials failed to anticipate the need to handle a crowd of tens of thousands of revelers expected for the very popular Halloween celebrations.

‘So Many Bodies’: Seoul Witnesses Recall Halloween Night of True Horror

Just two days earlier, the surrounding Yongsan district unveiled safety measures that included coronavirus prevention, street cleanliness, restaurant safety inspections and cracking down on potential drug use.

Missing from plans for the district were preparations to handle the expected daily crowds of around 100,000 – and the potential for such crowds in narrow streets and alleys to lead to a suffocating crush.

The alley, on a hill, was filled with people on Saturday evening. It was so crowded that when people fell on top of the hill it created a waterfall. Many people down the hill chanted “stop pushing, stop pushing”, according to witnesses interviewed by South Korean media.

The surveillance has highlighted the limits of national policies governing mass gatherings in public places, experts say. Although detailed security protocols are required for official events, such as festivals, the same disaster prevention methods do not apply to public spaces where large crowds are expected to gather informally, making the protocols ambiguous security arrangements with no clear agency in charge, they said.

The exact cause of the influx of crowds is under investigation.

Crowd crush in Seoul shows loopholes in Korean safety rules, experts say

Mehdi Moussaïd, a crowd behavior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, said the relatively spontaneous nature of the event – there are no tickets, and no controlled entrances and exits – exacerbated the disaster.

He watched publicly available videos of the crash and “saw what I typically see in these kinds of crashes – there were a lot of people, too many people for the space available. [This is] measured by density, so the number of people per square meter.

In this case, as in others he studied, he thinks there were about eight to ten people per square meter.

“At this level of density, it is not surprising that the first people start to pass out, because they are too tight and cannot breathe,” he said. “And if this continues, and this is what has happened, then all the people in this area will not have enough oxygen, even after passing out, and will die one after another.”

The hustle and bustle in Seoul was different from that of music festivals or religious pilgrimages, he added, because people are “in a city, and it’s not a planned event with entrance tickets that allow to channel the crowd. We don’t know which street people will go to.

The Itaewon Alley in the center of Saturday’s crowd also looked dangerous the night before, with crowds swaying side-by-side in a cramped hallway as their weight shifted on top of each other, one reveler said.

Hayley Johnson, 29, who said she went out on Friday night to take in the atmosphere, recalled the crowds were “manageable” until she reached two famous clubs, Fountain and Atelier, which are a short walk away from the driveway where the crash occurred.

When she reached the narrow street, “it was just clinch,” she said. “You would see behind you people rocking from side to side. This really scared my friend and me.

The event can be described as a crush or a crowd surge, but not a stampede, said G. Keith Still, visiting professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England. A crush or surge occurs when people are crammed into a confined space and there is a movement such as pushing that knocks the crowd down. A stampede implies that people had space to run, which was not the case in Itaewon, he said.

The more people in the crowd, the greater the force of the crowd crush. “The whole crowd goes down as one, and if you’re in a confined space, people can’t get up again,” Still said.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, bodies were laid out in the streets as onlookers frantically attempted CPR, pulling shirts over faces to signal the failure of their efforts. Video footage reviewed by The Washington Post shows officers running to the scene, a man being treated with a defibrillator and a woman’s body covered in clothing as blood pooled beside her. Others remained motionless, their mouths open.

“It was almost post-apocalyptic. It was almost all civilians, not medical personnel, trying to save these people,” said technician Yoon-sung Park, who helped transport the injured to more ground. safe for CPR.”People have been lying here all the way, about half a mile,” he added, pointing to the main street of the Itaewon market, where rescue workers had carried corpses covered in ambulances. “There were so many bodies.”

Staring out of their ninth-floor hotel room window on Saturday night, Florida siblings Joshua and Angela Smith watched the disaster unfold in the alley below. Joshua saw rescuers using hand pumps to provide oxygen to three victims being transported to ambulances, and he saw a fourth stretcher carrying a body in a bag. Angela Smith heard screams coming from the alley.

“It was awful, awful to see,” Joshua said.

Police led 31-year-old Florida doctor Sophia Akhiyat down the driveway to help, she said, describing “a bunch of humans” at the top of a narrow street that blocked ambulances from getting in. enter the area.

“These people, I think most of them were close to death or dead by the time we were helping them,” she said.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol visited the site on Sunday, with the alleys now blocked off with police tape and strewn with Halloween masks and buckets of plastic candy. The nation has declared a period of national mourning until Nov. 5, with flags flying at half-mast on federal buildings.

Reporting by Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Kelly Kasulis Cho from Seoul; Stephanie McCrummen and Praveena Somasundaram from Washington; and Annabelle Timsit from London.

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