At least 153 people have passed away after a Halloween celebration on Saturday 29th October in Itaewon, South Korea. After 10pm, a crowd of about 100,000 people – made up primarily of teens and young people in their twenties – who had gathered in the district’s steep and narrow side streets began to surge and cause a domino effect. People were knocked over and trapped, with some even clinging to the sides of nearby buildings in an effort to escape.
Partygoers had been celebrating the first Halloween event since the lifting of COVID restrictions, with the Itaewon district in Seoul being well known for its internationality and nightlife. Young people wore costumes, celebrating with friends. Later that night, social media footage shows emergency workers as well as civilians performing CPR on people lying in the streets. Others for whom it was too late had already been covered with blankets.
South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol, ordered an emergency response and declared a period of national mourning.
Many media outlets have been using the word ‘stampede’ to describe the disaster. However, crowd behaviour expert Professor Edwin Galea dislikes this term: he believes that language such as this suggests an atmosphere of chaos and inescapability, “apportion[ing] blame to the victims for behaving in an irrational, self-destructive, unthinking and uncaring manner”. In fact, “in virtually all these situations this is not the case, and it is usually the authorities to blame for poor planning, poor design, poor control, poor policing and mismanagement.”
Local law enforcement officials in South Korea have since admitted that the event’s safety planning had been insufficient. As there was no single organiser for the celebrations, there was no governmental requirement for individual bars, clubs or restaurants in the area to submit any form of safety management plan. The National Police Commissioner, Yoon Hee-keun, has issued a statement as to the inadequacy of the crowd control, whilst President Yoon Suk-yeol has emphasised the criticality of improvements being made to emergency responses.
Transcripts of emergency calls placed on the night of the accident record the growing distress as the crowd swelled more and more, with at least eleven emergency calls having been made to local police. “We’re going to be crushed to death”, one caller said. “There’s so many people here right now, we’re on the verge of a major accident”, another shouted.
Law enforcement disregarded warnings of the impending disaster for nearly four hours before the mass loss of life occurred. Though officers were apparently sent to the scene for four of the calls, it is still to be determined what actions were taken upon arrival.
In the following week, thousands gathered for vigils in remembrance of the victims. As the nation grieves, many are calling for Yoon Suk-yeol’s resignation. The mother of one of the victims was seen ripping up the floral wreaths left by the president and Seoul’s mayor at a memorial held on Friday 4th November, crying out “What’s the point of [these flowers] when they couldn’t protect [our children]?”
This is not the first time that a crowd crush has been in the news in recent history – it has now been nearly exactly a year since the fatal crowd crush at Astroworld Festival. Occurring on 5th November 2021, ten people were killed, twenty-five hospitalised and over three hundred more injured as the artist Travis Scott began to perform. Shouts and screams to stop the show were ignored.
As a result, there have been many social media posts advising people on what they can do to keep themselves safe if they are in a similar situation. Ali Asgary, an expert in disaster and emergency management at Ontario’s York University, talks of how “in a moving crowd, the crowd becomes like a fluid”, as “you are controlled by the whole – like a drop of fluid.” Generally, if you are touching people on all four sides of your body whilst in a crowd, be especially wary. Crowds are considered dangerous when there are five or six people per square metre.
Therefore, when entering a crowd, make sure to look around to see if you’d be able to exit the crowd should you need to. If it’s a moving crowd, Asgary urges to “make sure it’s moving – and that it’s not moving and stopping, moving and stopping”, as this increases the potential risk for a crowd crush.
The most vital thing you can do is try to protect your chest and lungs: “the majority of people who are harmed in a crush cannot get oxygen to their body because of the pressure to their organs from the crowd.” He suggests to “try to bend your arms together in a way that protects your chest” to ensure that you have enough room to breathe. Calmly following the crowd, without pushing or panicking, is recommended as the safest option.
The horror of the events that occurred in Itaewon are unlikely to be soon forgotten: most of the victims were younger than 30; two-thirds were women, and thousands were witnesses. With music from nearby bars and clubs drowning out instructions from the police and swallowing up screams for help, the chaos and confusion of that night has been an event that has horrified not just the citizens of Seoul and South Korea, but the world.