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What was supposed to be a fun night out in the spirit of Halloween quickly turned into a national tragedy. On October 29th at 10:15PM in Itaewon, a crowd surge took place and, as of the morning of November 1st, claimed the lives of 156 victims, 26 of whom were foreigners. 

More than 100,000 people made their way to Itaewon on the 29th in order to celebrate the first unmasked Halloween since the start of COVID-19. The celebration became dangerous when it became clear that there were too many people in a particular alleyway. With people coming in from multiple directions, all trying to go to different places, control of the crowd was quickly lost. Around 10:15 PM, a number of people fell down the sloping pathway in the alley, starting the deadly crush. Witnesses recount seeing people climb up buildings and onto ledges in order to escape the crowd. People reported breathing difficulties and the feeling of being crushed as they stood pressed between countless amounts of bodies. 

When first responders arrived, they were immediately overwhelmed, and civilians with no medical training were called to help perform CPR on victims of the incident. Witnesses reported that people were stacked 5 or 6 layers on top of each other. First responders, along with civilians, struggled to pull people out of the crowd in order to help them. One paramedic stated that they started pulling people out of the bottom of the pile first, as they had presumably been there the longest. One witness stated that, at one point, paramedics simply started focusing on whoever looked like they’d be able to survive. By the end of the night, bodies lined the street covered in blue tarp. As of now, it’s still unsure whether or not the death toll will continue to rise. 

“People began pushing from behind, it was like a wave- there was nothing you could do. People were suffocating, screaming, getting squeezed, falling… there were just too many people.”

Nuhyil Ahammed

Some may be wondering where the police were while this incident was taking place; 197 police officers were said to be stationed on the ground in Itaewon on the 29th. Most of the other forces were deployed to areas of Seoul where protests were expected. Although there were 197 officers, it was reported that very little was done in terms of crowd control and, instead, those officers were focused on cracking down on drug use and sexual abuse.

A few days after the tragedy, new information came to light. Calls were made to the emergency police line, 112, as far as 4 hours before the incident took place. From 6:30 PM until 10:11 PM, 11 calls were made in reference to the danger of the crowd. Callers were reported to have said that they felt as though they were being crushed, warned that the crowds were dangerous, and begged the police to help. The last call was made at 10:11 PM, 4 minutes before the tragedy took place. 

Despite all of these calls made before the crush, police were only dispatched to 4 of the calls. It is unsure what the police who were dispatched did, however, for the 6 calls made from 9:07 PM until the crush, there were no police mobilized.

“Yes, however, here, oh my, to come down the alley, I’m afraid, people are pushing and I think I am going to get crushed, please take control, yes,”

10th Caller

What is a crowd crush? Crowd crush is what occurs when the density of a crowd reaches over 4 people per square meter. In Itaewon, the density was over 5 people per square meter. When too many people push into a confined area—either on their way in or trying to get out—a crowd collapse can occur, which can be deadly, as seen in this incident. People become so pressed against each other that their lungs can no longer expand, and it puts them at risk for compressed asphyxiation. 

According to Steve Allen, a crowd safety management expert, some crowd disasters are both foreseeable and preventable. He stresses that key measures to prevent crowd disasters consist of effective monitoring that should be undertaken by competent personnel who can identify crowd-related issues, having crowd management staff and signage in place, as well as sharing information in advance using a range of methods, including social media. 

In the case of the Itaewon crowd crush, Lee Young-Joo, a professor at the department of fire and disaster prevention at the University of Seoul, explains that the sloped alley where the incident took place, which was 3.2 meters wide, seemed to have furthered the damage done in the alley. He stated that as people “were densely clogged on the inclined alley, some people seem to have tripped over others standing in front of them, resulting in a domino effect.”

What happens in a crowd crush, as explained by G. Keith Still, cannot be blamed on the crowd. Most articles discussing this incident will use the word ‘stampede.’ The word ‘stampede’ implies that this was the crowd’s own irrational and self-destructive behavior that caused the crush. At no point did anyone go into this incident thinking, “Let’s become a mob.” As explained by Edwin Gaela, a professor from the University of Greenwich, “It is usually the authorities to blame for poor planning, poor design, poor control, poor policing, and mismanagement… People are only directly crushed by others who have no choice in the matter”.

“People don’t die because they panic. They panic because they are dying”

G. Keith Still

As a result of this tragedy, the president of S. Korea has issued a state of national mourning until November 5th. The government also asks that people stop sharing videos and pictures of this tragedy—most of the clips are uncensored and violate the privacy of the victims, as well as add to the trauma that the victims’ families are facing.

Resources:

 Donation Information for Victims of Itaewon Tragedy 

This website is regularly updated with new information regarding foreign victims as well as information regarding which victims are still in need of donations.

Nordic Frost

This coffee shop is donating all of its sales and proceeds to the families of the victims. They update their Instagram regularly with information on how to donate and support.

Kaitlyn Russo

Rutgers '23

Kaitlyn is a senior at Rutgers University studying Korean and Elementary Special Education. In her free time, she enjoys baking and hanging out with her pet hamster, Penelope.