South Korean police have published transcripts of emergency calls made in the hours and minutes before the Halloween crowd surge which killed 156 people in Seoul, in which panicked revellers warned of the impending disaster.
As anger mounts over the nation’s worst tragedy in almost a decade, police said an initial investigation had discovered many urgent calls from members of the public warning of the danger brewing in Itaewon – with officers failing to handle the calls effectively.
Transcripts released on Tuesday showed that, in the first of 11 calls – made at 6:34pm, nearly four hours prior to the fatal stampede – one panicked citizen said: “[It] looks like you can get crushed to death with people coming up here while there’s no room for people to go down.
“I barely managed to leave but there are too many people – it looks like you should come and control it.”
Asked by the police officer whether they meant that people could “get crushed and fall, and then there’s going to be a big accident”, the caller replied in the affirmative, adding: “This is so chilling right now”.
Survivors and grieving relatives have alleged that there were not enough police officers or sufficient crowd control measures deployed to manage the 100,000-strong crowds which gathered to celebrate Halloween for the first time since Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.
A swathe of senior officials offered deep apologies on Tuesday, with Seoul’s mayor weeping openly and national police chief Yoon Hee-keun saying he felt “a heavy responsibility” for the “inadequate” crowd control in the popular nightlife district of Itaewon.
Police attended the scene in response to just four of the 11 emergency calls received before the situation turned fatal, a police official told reporters.
While vast numbers of first responders were eventually mobilised to help, eyewitnesses said it was near-impossible for ambulances and rescuers to move through the crowds, and survivors have described being trapped under the crush of bodies for up to 90 minutes.
Most of the 156 people who died in the alleyway near Itaewon’s Hamilton Hotel were in their 20s and 30s, and largely suffered cardiac arrest due to asphyxiation, officials have said.
The police transcript of an emergency call at 10:11pm, less than 20 minutes before the fatal crush began, notes that screams could be heard over the phone as the caller warned: “[People] will get crushed to death here. It’s chaotic.”
Nearly two hours earlier, a separate member of the public had warned: “People are falling down on the streets, looks like there could be an accident, it looks very dangerous.”
As the transcripts were released, it was not immediately clear why police officers were not deployed to seven out of the 11 calls, or what safety measures were taken by those who were.
“Those things are all under inspection now, so it’s difficult for me to answer at this point,” a National Police Agency official said.
The transcripts appear to confirm the accounts of witnesses, who reported seeing some police directing traffic on the main road but few or no officers in Itaewon’s crowded pedestrian alleyways and side streets.
There were 137 officers deployed to monitor the Halloween festivities on Saturday – slightly more than in pre-pandemic years, police said, conceding that their primary focus in Itaewon had been policing crime and illicit drug use, rather than crowd control.
This figure also paled in contrast with the 7,000 officers said to have been sent to the scene of anti-government protests elsewhere in Seoul earlier that day.
South Korea’s president Yoon Suk-yeol, who visited the scene on Sunday, lamented during a cabinet council meeting on Tuesday that the nation lacks sufficient research on crowd management, calling for the use of drones and other technologies to be used in the development of an effective strategy.
As police began investigating how so many people were killed in the diaster and whether their own response was flawed, prime minister Han Duck-soo said the probe would also cover whether government agencies’ responses were appropriate.
Mr Yoon, the police commissioner, said on Tuesday that investigators “will speedily and rigorously conduct intensive inspections and investigation on all aspects without exception to explain the truth of this accident”.
Nathan Taverniti, an Australian whose friend was killed in the crush, blamed the disaster on “government mismanagement” and an inadequate police presence.
He said he had not sensed the danger until people nearby tried and failed to help women who had fallen get back to their feet – by which time he had lost his three friends in the huge crowd.
He recalled trying to grab what he thought were his friends hands among the bodies starting to pile up but being forced to let go after being crushed himself by the enormous weight of falling people, shouting in vain at nearby bars to open their doors to ease the crowds.
Several police officers arrived after around half an hour as bystanders helped pull those injured from the mass of bodies, with more officers eventually appearing later, he said.
The 24-year-old discovered one of his friends among the rows of unconscious bodies laid out on the pavement, and later found his two other friends being treated in hospital.
“I believe 100 per cent that this incident is a result of the government’s mismanagement and the lack of ability because I have known that Halloween event has always been this big in Itaewon,” Mr Taverniti said.
“If the government knows that there were going to be that many people there, and there is going to be road blockages, there should be enough police and emergency services already there on standby.”
Additional reporting by agencies