SEOUL, South Korea — Police admitted mistakes on Monday as South Korea sought answers on how Halloween festivities in the nation’s capital turned into deadly crush.
President Yoon Suk Yeol leads the mourners by paying homage to the sites of Seoul dedicated to the more than 150 people who were killed. His government has pledged to conduct a thorough investigation into the disaster, the country’s deadliest in years.
Tens of thousands of people had gathered in Itaewon – a nightlife area of the capital popular with foreigners – on Saturday when a surge of crowds began in a steep, narrow alley, triggering a deadly panic.
Many of the revelers were teenagers and twenties and dressed in costume for the country premiere Halloween celebration without Covid restrictions in three years.
The death toll in the disaster rose by one to 154 on Monday morning, including two Americans and 24 other foreign nationals. All but one of the victims have been identified, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said. The number of injured also stands at 149, including 33 in serious condition.
At the city’s memorials, mourners left traditional white chrysanthemums along with snacks, soft drinks and bottles of beer and Korean soju liquor. In Itaewon, two Buddhist monks chanted and performed rituals throughout the afternoon.
The country’s president, who ordered a week-long period of national mourning, honored the victims at a memorial near City Hall. A second memorial was erected at a site in Itaewon.
“I am overwhelmed with grief and responsibility as the president charged with the lives and safety of our people as I think of the bereaved families who suffer the loss of their loved ones,” Yoon said in a meeting before to visit the memorial on Monday. “My heart breaks so much over the tragic loss, especially of young people, whose dreams can no longer see the light.”
At the meeting, Yoon ordered the government to cover the victims’ funeral and medical expenses. Officials urged the public not to spread false information, hate speech or graphic videos from the scene as they investigate what exactly happened.
Police said they launched a 475-member task force to investigate the crash. The force had obtained videos taken from about 50 security cameras in the area and were also analyzing video clips posted on social media, senior police officer Nam Gu-Jun told reporters. So far, they have interviewed more than 40 witnesses and survivors, Nam said Monday.
Witnesses suggested there was not enough police presence to control the crowd, which may have been larger than expected.
A senior police official countered that suggestion, but said authorities had not anticipated the possibility of a fatal crash.
“It was expected that a large number of people would gather there. But we didn’t expect large-scale casualties to occur due to the gathering of many people,” Hong Ki-hyun, head of the National Agency’s Public Order Management Office, told reporters on Monday. of the font.
“I was told that the police officers at the scene did not detect a sudden increase in the crowd,” he said, adding: “I regret the error in judgment of these officers.”
According to Hong, there were 137 police deployed in Itaewon on Saturday, compared to 37 to 90 police in the three years before the pandemic began.
“The focus was on traffic control, crime prevention and illegal activities and not crowd safety in narrow streets and alleys,” he said. Hong said police don’t have a playbook for situations like Halloween festivities, which don’t have a central organizer, and they would learn from the disaster.
As a team of police and government forensic experts searched the area to find out where the crowds started and how it developed, experts said the failure to control the number of people allowed in the area was the ultimate problem.
“There are a finite number of people who can fit into any space,” Keith Still, professor of crowd science at Suffolk University, told NBC News.
“Anyone who moves or tries to get out, once they have passed this safety threshold, there is nothing more they can do. It’s up to the people who manage and plan the spaces,” he said.
Although Halloween is not a traditional holiday in South Korea, Itaewon is known for its costume parties at bars and clubs, which have grown in popularity in recent years.
Football coach Kerem Kerimoglu was one of thousands of people who gathered there on Saturday.
With each passing hour, he says he worries even more about not hearing from the two friends he was separated from during the wave. “I’m worried if they’re dead. The government has not yet shown the ID card to people,” he said.
Kerimoglu, 27, lives about a mile from Itaewon’s main street. He said he returned to the scene on Sunday evening and saw dozens of mourners, dressed in black clothing, gather around a makeshift memorial site and offer white flowers.
“They were giving free flowers to everyone. I took one too and put flowers and remembered that day,” Kerimoglu said via Instagram, adding that the air smelled like “death.”
“I got goosebumps when I put the flowers on the ground,” he said.
The crowd surge is the country’s deadliest peacetime accident since the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry. This accident, in which 304 people were killed, also affected mainly young people.
Stella Kim and Thomas Maresca reported from Seoul. Jennifer Jett and Mithil Aggarwal reported from Hong Kong.