“There are so many people here that I think we might get crushed…someone please help control this and make it a one-way street.”
This is just one of many heart-wrenching calls reported to the police during the time of the Itaewon crowd surge. On Oct. 29, 2022 in a narrow alleyway, a mass of partygoers from both sides converged together and chaos ensued, killing 159 people in the process. After the incident, South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol gave out his condolences before expressing that he, too, was heartbroken because of the tragedy. He promised to make necessary improvements to the national safety system in order to uphold the government’s promise: prioritizing the people’s safety. Now, almost a year after the disturbance, Halloween is approaching, and families in the country are saying that the government has barely changed anything since the tragedy.
The government must take responsibility for their failure to punish the people accountable for the incident, along with the lack of change in the country’s safety and the reassurance that the catastrophe will never happen again.
It was the first time in two years that a celebration would be held in South Korea since the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, all restrictions were lifted for the holiday. An official warning was given informing the public that the gatherings would be unusually large, especially in Itaewon, a city that is known for its popular nightlife. Little did they know a tragedy would occur and the consequences would be horrendous.
A wave of people had gathered in the area with no police officers keeping things under control, despite there being 137 of them dispatched in Itaewon alone. As more partygoers kept entering the alley from both sides, they were so tightly packed together that it was impossible to pull anyone out of the chaos. Eventually, people who were standing began dropping like flies as they found their airways getting crushed by the pressure of those around them, leading to numerous deaths by cardiac arrest.
All throughout, people were calling the emergency hotlines as best as they could and warned the police constantly of the dangerous bottleneck that was getting worse in the alleyway. Unfortunately, the police ignored those calls as they were busy watching out for drugs and other crimes that could occur. However, it is speculated that the police were too preoccupied with guarding the president’s office, as thousands of officers were deployed to watch out for peaceful anti-Yoon demonstrators. Even more preposterous was the fact that the nearest first-responder stations were less than a mile away—the fire department a mere 660 feet from the surge, and the police station half of that distance. It wasn’t until four hours after the reports of the first deaths that the police finally received the calls and went right to the scene.
Why in the world were the authorities patrolling the city for other crimes? The answer is unknown, but it is quite a reckless move for them to not prioritize the public’s safety above anything.
When the incident was brought up all over the news, people still considered it an “accident” and referred to the victims as “the dead”–nothing more. However, most people still consider it a “criminal act” because of the fact that it could have been prevented. The blame can be put on both the government and the authorities, since neither party prioritized the safety of the public at hand. However, while the authorities admitted to being too late, the government did not take responsibility for their shortcomings and stayed silent instead.
So, what were the effects of the disaster regarding the country? As a result of the incident, bars and clubs in Itaewon closed out as people began shunning the area. Seoul has set up extra safety precautions in case of a future gathering as large as last year’s. Police officers and officials will be sent into Itaewon on standby for intervention if streets become congested. Along with the increase in security, the roads’ structures are changing, with the streets being less slippery. This is a rather good thing, because it shows how things can change for the betterment of the people rather than being under the order of the leaders.
Meanwhile, considering the reactions of the public, many South Korean authorities have been fiercely interrogated and bombarded with questions about why the authorities were not better prepared, why there was no plan to keep the people safe, and whether or not the government had anything to say regarding what occurred. Relatives of the victims have been constantly pushing for a law that can open an investigation into the case, retorting that the government was not thorough enough with providing accountability for the country’s worst peacetime disasters. Citizens viewed the authorities’ claim of not having a mandate for the regulation of crowds as “an excuse.” Meanwhile, the 1,300 rescuers and paramedics who were dispatched to the scene are suffering from the psychological impact of the incident, as they must’ve known that they would’ve been able to save more people if they had come earlier.
We know the effects of the tragedy on both the public and on the country itself, but what about the government, the ruling party? According to the results released in January from an investigation from the National Police Agency, 23 officials had charges against them such as negligence and tampering with the investigation to which 12 of them were indicted and sent to trial. Yet, for some reason, the officials targeted were of lower to middle ranks, while more senior authorities were cleared of any sort of wrongdoing during the incident. For example, the National Assembly impeached safety minister Lee Sang-min, responding that he should take responsibility for the disaster. However, five months later, his impeachment was overturned, with the reason being that “no single person could be blamed for a tragedy that resulted from a failure that spanned multiple government agencies.” To think that the government may work on some kind of hierarchy is rather horrendous and extremely unfair, because this expresses an imbalance of power between the higher and lower authority officials. Rather than focusing on the state of the president, the police and all first-responders should’ve been dispatched to the scene of the disaster when it happened or when it was reported. It may also be necessary for officers to be provided with better training in order to handle similar situations better in the future, along with stationing them along the narrow streets to control the flow of people storming in the area.
As of now, many bereaved families, alongside the entirety of South Korea, are trying to move on from the tragedy. However, every now and then, people still mourn the victims for their unfortunate end. In the alleyway where the calamity occurred, a wall is covered with notes from residents and visitors from around the world, all of which send their condolences to the dead. Bereaved family members assembled purple memorial ribbons while providing their memories of the victims. Finally, to honor those who have lost their lives, a temporary memorial was made in City Hall of Seoul.
“Some people still call it an accident. It is not an accident. An accident is something that…you could have, you know, prevented.”