SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean officials admitted responsibility and apologized on Tuesday for failures in preventing and responding to a Halloween crowd surge that killed more than 150 people and left citizens shocked and angry.
The government is facing growing public scrutiny over whether the crush Saturday night in Seoul’s Itaewon district, a popular nightlife neighborhood, could have been prevented and who should take responsibility for the country’s worst disaster in years.
National police chief Yoon Hee Keun said an initial investigation found there were many urgent calls from citizens notifying authorities about the potential danger of the crowd gathering in Itaewon. He said police officers who received the calls failed to handle them effectively.
“I feel a heavy responsibility (for the disaster) as the head of one of the related government offices,” Yoon said in a televised news conference. “Police will do their best to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.”
Yoon said police have launched an intense internal probe into the officers’ handling of the emergency calls and other issues, such as the on-the-spot response to the crowd surge in Itaewon that night.
Separately, South Korea’s interior minister, emergency office chief, Seoul mayor and the head of a ward office that includes the Itaewon neighborhood all offered public apologies.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon apologized deeply and wept and briefly halted his news conference as he talked about the parent of a 20-year-old woman who was declared dead earlier in the day.
The disaster — which left at least 156 people dead and 151 others injured — was concentrated in a narrow downhill alley in Itaewon. Witnesses described people falling on one another, suffering severe breathing difficulties and falling unconscious. They said rescuers and ambulances failed to reach the crammed alleys in time because the entire Itaewon area was packed with slow-moving vehicles and partygoers clad in Halloween costumes.
Most of the dead were in their 20s and 30s, and about two-thirds were women.
During a Cabinet council meeting Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol acknowledged that South Korea lacks research on crowd management. He called for the use of drones and other high-tech resources to develop an effective crowd control capability, and said the government will soon meet with experts to review national safety rules.
The crowd surge is South Korea’s deadliest disaster since a 2014 ferry sinking that killed 304 people and exposed lax safety rules and regulatory failures. Saturday’s surge has raised public questions about what South Korea has done since then to prevent human-made disasters.