South Korea mourns Halloween crowd surge victims

South Korea mourns Halloween crowd surge victims

President Yoon Suk-yeol opened a memorial for the 154 people killed in a crowd surge at Halloween celebrations
President Yoon Suk-yeol opened a memorial for the 154 people killed in a crowd surge at Halloween celebrations. Photo: Jung Yeon-je / AFP
Source: AFP

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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol opened a memorial Monday for the 154 people killed in a crowd surge at Halloween celebrations, as authorities faced accusations that lax crowd control polices caused the disaster.

After the president and his wife laid single white flowers at the huge altar set up in central Seoul for victims -- mostly young women -- of the Saturday disaster, members of the public began arriving to pay their respects.

One man knelt down before the black altar, covered in neat rows of white flowers, and wept.

At a makeshift momorial outside a subway station in the popular Itaewon nightlife district, where the tragedy occurred, people also stopped to pray and lay flowers.

Calls for accountability grew Monday in the press and online, as potential lapses of crowd control and policing emerged.

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A Buddhist nun prays in tribute to the victims
A Buddhist nun prays in tribute to the victims. Photo: Anthony WALLACE / AFP
Source: AFP

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As many as 100,000 people -- mostly in their teens and 20s, many wearing Halloween costumes -- had poured into Itaewon's small, winding streets, with eyewitnesses describing scant security and no crowd control.

Police said at a briefing Monday they had deployed 137 officers to the event, pointing out that number was significantly higher than previous years.

But local reports said most police deployed were focused on drug use, rather than crowd control.

"This was a disaster that could have been controlled or prevented," Lee Young-ju, a professor from the Department of Fire and Disaster at the University of Seoul, told broadcaster YTN.

"But this was not taken care of, with no one taking the responsibility in the first place."

Online, claims also spread that police this year were not actively managing the crowd, which allowed too many people to congregate around the subway station and in the alleyway at the epicenter of the disaster.

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"I've lived in Itaewon for 10 years and experienced Halloween every year but yesterday was by no means particularly crowded compared to previous years," Twitter user @isakchoi312 wrote.

"Ultimately, I think the cause of the disaster was crowd control."

On Sunday, the government had also defended the policing plan.

Police insisted their crowd control policies were not to blame
Police insisted their crowd control policies were not to blame. Photo: Anthony WALLACE / AFP
Source: AFP

"(The crush) was not a problem that could be solved by deploying police or firefighters in advance," Interior Minister Lee Sang-min told a briefing.

South Korea is typically strong on crowd control, with the country's regular protest rallies often so heavily policed that officers can outnumber participants.

But protest organisers must by law report plans to authorities in advance, but there were no such requirements for the young people flocking to the Itaewon Halloween event.

Chaos, fear

Tens of thousands of partygoers were packed into the downhill alleyway, no more than three meters (10 feet) wide, with eye-witnesses describing scenes of chaos, as people pushed and shoved to get through, with no police in sight to guide or control the crowd.

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Witnesses described being trapped in a narrow, sloping alleyway, and scrambling to get out of the suffocating crowd as people piled on top of one another.

Authorities have warned the death toll could rise, with dozens of people in critical conditions
Authorities have warned the death toll could rise, with dozens of people in critical conditions. Photo: Albert RETIEF / AFP
Source: AFP

Most of the 154 dead, including 26 foreigners, had been identified Sunday, with the education ministry confirming Monday that at least six young teenagers were among the victims.

But the toll could rise further with at least 33 people in critical condition, officials said.

The country started a week of national mourning, with entertainment events and concerts cancelled and flags nationwide flying at half mast.

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Source: AFP

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