Who should take responsibility for the Itaewon disaster?
The broadcast of SBS’s “Unanswered Questions” on November 5th highlighted the Itaewon disaster under the subtitle “SOS was ignored in the Halloween tragedy”.
The shocking disaster occurred in Itaewon, where the Halloween festival was held, at around 10 p.m on October 29th. A large-scale crowd crush accident happened in an alley near Hotel H on the main street of Itaewon.
The accident caused 156 deaths and injured hundreds of people. In particular, most of the dead were young people in their 20s and 30s who went out to enjoy the Halloween festival. The fact that those who survived the accident had their own stories and are spending every day feeling sad and guilty drew great regrets.
The public raged as the authorities avoided taking responsibility, saying they didn’t host the Halloween festival in Itaewon. In the end, officials belatedly bowed their heads and apologized but lots of people are still angry.
Then, why did the Itaewon disaster happen? Various speculations and rumors about the cause of the accident have been raised. Among them, many witnesses claimed that the tilt began when a man wearing a rabbit headband shouted and urged other people to push.
In this regard, the police also began to search for the criminal in the crowd. In the meantime, the man with the rabbit headband captured in numerous videos was found but he explained that he had nothing to do with the accident by providing the time he got on and off the subway and the location captured in the videos. Despite his explanation, malicious messages continued.
Did the crush accident happen when a person tried to push the crowd? Many survivors and witnesses said they felt the pressures and thought the accident might have started as someone pushed them from behind.
Accordingly, the production team of “Unanswered Questions” analyzed the accident closely with reports from various people, including the survivors and witnesses, as well as video clips.
A physicist said the laws of physics were hidden in the video footage and survivors’ testimonies. He said, “When small grains are trapped in a certain area, the liquid’s movement makes them more solid, causing a motionless phenomenon in which the grains cannot move. Depending on the density of the crowd, if it exceeds a certain degree, it becomes a completely solid state.”
According to the crowd density calculation method, 6-7 people can move within 1m², but when more than 9 people are in the same space, it would become a solid state and a push is likely to happen. At the time of the Itaewon accident, the crowd density was about 16 people per 1m².
The production team tested whether 16 people could be in a 1m² space together under the same condition as the accident site. 16 people managed to climb out together in a space made with scaffoldings. However, in the scene more similar to the Itaewon accident scene, which was blocked on all sides, a different pressure was applied and they eventually pushed down the set.
Therefore, the pressure people felt at the scene of the accident was the crowd pressure from the crowd density itself.
The program also pointed out that the simultaneous inflow of people coming down from the three-way intersection at the top of the alley and people coming up the alley from Itaewon Station was another problem that caused the accident to occur four hours after the risk of a crowd crush was predicted.
Regarding the video of the Itaewon accident, a foreign expert, who has been involved in research in the field of crowd management, said, “Everyone knew that it would be a large-scale festival. But the problem was caused because they did not pay attention to it”.
He pointed out that a crowd crush could happen at any time and said, “Korea is repeating the error that all other countries have experienced”, expressing his regrets. Regarding the fact that the authorities are finding a person to take responsibility for the accident, the expert said, “Those responsible for the safety of the crowd have been constantly searched for scapegoats”, adding “No individual or group has contributed to such an accident. Finding someone to blame has always been the case after an accident. However, it was just an accident caused by the crowd pressure”.
The expert continued, “Only the authorities know why so many people gather there”, adding “The relevant authorities, who failed to predict or prepare for the accident, are the cause of the disaster”, pointing out that the tragedy wouldn’t have happened with minimal crowd movement control.
Then, why did the authorities not expect the situation and gather enough security personnel that day? In response to this question, the authorities said they could not manage and control citizens because the Halloween festival was not hosted by anyone.
The expert criticized, “Where did the idea of applying safety management manuals to a local festival only when it had a host come from? They shouldn’t have answered that way”, adding “Rather, festivals without organizers are more dangerous and management should have been strengthened”. He stressed that if the authorities cared for the safety of the citizens, they should have carried out safety management regardless of festivals with or without organizers.
30 years ago, an accident similar to the Itaewon disaster occurred in Hong Kong. At that time, the government said they would prepare management countermeasures for places where large crowds gather and pay attention to safety measures with that disaster as an example. And 30 years later, many citizens in that country can now enjoy Halloween safely under the supervision of the police, which systematically controls citizens for their safety.
In addition, Japan and the United States also held festivals under the control of the police forces to prevent accidents. The police will be the organizer of the event regardless of whether the event has a host or not. This attitude is so different from what officials of the Itaewon disaster said that they did not take action because the festival did not have an organizer despite the concentration of 130,000 people.
Moreover, the fact that the response to citizens’ reports was also a problem. There were about 100 reports of crush-related risks on the day of the accident. But the police failed to respond quickly. On the day of the accident, 137 police officers were deployed in Itaewon. However, most of them were in charge of crime-related patrols, making it difficult for them to respond to such a crowd crush appropriately.
In this regard, the expert said, “The disaster management system is only set up in a formal way, but it is not working. It seems like no proper responses have been given to reports all this time”, pointing out the absence of those who control the emergency response system who did not react even when the disaster continued to occur. He also expressed his regrets for the disaster that could have been prevented if the golden time had not been missed.
Another expert spoke out, saying “Although report calls kept on being made, they were all transferred to a higher authority and no support request was made”.
Police insiders are now finding faults in each other. Pushing responsibility on each other without anyone admitting their wrongdoings is a similar case that happened to the past crush disaster in the UK. Then, what will be the conclusion of the Itaewon disaster?
The foreign expert analyzed, “The victims of such massive accidents are mostly young people. The problem is that they thought they could control the situation themselves and wouldn’t need help”, adding “It makes them freely enter unsafe places where no one is responsible for. If the authorities had intervened in the case in advance, such casualties would not have occurred.”
Korea wouldn’t have paid such a high price if they had referred to countries that paid more attention to crowd safety and implemented measures. “Unanswered Questions” host Kim Sang Joong said he felt sorry for the older generations as many young people died so terribly.
At a time when the mourning period is about to end, the authorities are engaged in a battle of truth about who is responsible for the disaster.
In response, the hosts of the broadcast said that there is only one truth and that those who said they were not responsible for the clear truth should not be in a position to take responsibility. Also, they said, “The country is the servant of the people, not the master of the people”, and expressed their condolences to 156 victims of the Itaewon disaster.