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SEOUL — Forty-eight hours after Saturday’s deadly Halloween stampede, the country is mourning the victims and seeking answers.
A crowd surges through a narrow alley in the Itaewon district of the slain capital more than 150 people and injured more than 140 on Saturday night. The victims were mostly young adults, and among the dead were 26 foreigners from 14 countries.
President Yoon Suk Yeol on Sunday declared a week-long period of national mourning, the second in the country’s history. National flags fly at half mast and many public events are canceled or delayed. Police launched a 475-person investigation team and searched the scene with medical examiners on Monday.
On Monday, local governments set up public places of mourning. Jeong Hye-yoon, 35, visited an altar near the stage. As a young woman living in a nearby neighborhood, she finds it “incredible and surreal” that a disaster of such magnitude has occurred in the heart of the city.
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Witnesses lament lack of crowd control measures
“Big crowds gather in this area every year. But they were left on their own without any preparation to prevent a huge accident from happening,” Jeong said.
The multicultural neighborhood of Itaewon attracts hundreds of thousands of revelers every year in search of Halloween festivities. Police had estimated that more than 100,000 people would visit the district this year, as people celebrate the first Halloween without pandemic restrictions. More than 130,000 passengers used Itaewon Subway Station on Saturday, according to Seoul Metro Corporation.
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In videos filmed earlier in the evening and posted to social media, the 10-foot-wide sloping driveway is seen packed with people trying to navigate back and forth. The alley starts a few steps from a subway exit on Main Street and connects to a narrower street lined with popular restaurants and clubs.
Many eyewitnesses lamented the lack of crowd control measures. The National Police Agency on Monday said a total of 137 police officers were dispatched to the district on Saturday. And they were in charge of fighting crime, not crowd control.
Hong Ki-hyun, head of the agency’s Public Order Management Office, admitted the police’s failure to foresee mass casualties and expressed “regret” about their judgement. He said the police have no manual for large gatherings that take place without a clear organizer.
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Public safety experts stress that the spontaneous nature of the gathering cannot be an excuse for inaction. Moon Hyeon-cheol, from the Department of Police Science at Soongsil University, said police and local authorities “could have blocked car traffic on the street near the site over the past weekend or run the subway at Itaewon station without stopping”.
Families of victims of 2014 ferry disaster say tragedy sounds all too familiar
For a group of mourners who visited the Itaewon site on Monday, the massive loss of young lives and the failure to prevent it seem tragically familiar. These are the parents who lost their children in the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014.
The ferry sank and killed more than 300 passengers, including 250 high school students, in part due to government failures and improper safety measures.
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Jeong Boo-ja, who lost his son in the ferry disaster eight years ago, said the parents “thought South Korea would have learned a lesson and not repeat the same thing” after their tragedy.
Following the accident, the government restructured its disaster management system, tightened safety rules and increased corresponding budgets. But according to Home Office data from 2020, the number of disasters such as fires, chemical spills and boat or train accidents continued to rise – after a brief dip in 2015.
Jeong Boo-ja struggles to come up with words of condolence for the families of the victims.
“There will be really painful times ahead. I myself don’t know how I have spent the last eight years. And even though I share the same experience, I don’t know how I can console the bereaved families.” , she says.
“I hope they stay strong and aren’t consumed by their own grief. I hope they can sincerely say goodbye to their son or daughter when they can. They will regret it if they do. they don’t.”