SEOUL — When the K-pop group BTS staged a show in South Korea that drew a crowd of 55,000, the police were ready, assigning 1,300 officers to keep people safe. And when political protests are held, however modest in size, the country’s police are famous for laying careful plans to make sure crowds do not get out of control.
But that did not happen Saturday night, when tens of thousands of boisterous young Koreans, freed at last of pandemic restrictions, surged into a Seoul nightlife neighborhood to celebrate Halloween. The police had assigned just 137 officers — and most of those were ordered not to direct the throngs of people but to look out for crimes like sexual harassment, theft and drug use.
By the next morning, the human cost of those decisions was clear: More than 150 people died in a narrow alleyway in Itaewon, the popular entertainment district in central Seoul where they had crammed in to enjoy an October evening out.
While government officials have been mostly tight-lipped about what went wrong in Itaewon on Saturday evening, saying only that they were caught off guard, many are already placing blame for one of the worst peacetime disasters in South Korea’s history on the failure to police the crowd, even as it became evident that things were getting out of control.
“This is clearly a man-made disaster,” said Park Ji-hyun, a leader of the opposition Democratic Party, in a Facebook post. “The government must take responsibility for failing to control the crowd, even when a bigger crowd was expected this year than last.”
The crowd issues that come with a pop performance, of course, are not the same as a party in the streets. Unlike the BTS concert, government officials point out, the gathering in Itaewon was spontaneous. There were no sponsors or organizers, who are required by law to discuss safety measures with the police when they host large events that need traffic and crowd control.
But the police themselves knew a large crowd would gather, if not just how large it would become. In a news release on Thursday, the Yongsan police station, which oversees the neighborhood, said its top priority was to “secure citizens’ safety and order.”
But it appears they failed to take fundamental steps to prepare. Crowd control was a “parallel job,” not the main focus, said one police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is still underway.
Even on an ordinary weekend, the neighborhood attracts a crowd. But this promised to be no ordinary weekend, and while the investigation was still continuing, on Monday questions were being raised about why no police officers were in Itaewon to provide crowd control at a well-known choke point near a busy subway station exit and a tight alleyway known for its high foot traffic.
As South Korea grappled to understand how a tragedy of this scale could have happened, no government agency seemed prepared to take full responsibility for the scores of people who were killed on one of the busiest nights of the year in Itaewon, though there were signs of division within the governing camp.
South Korea’s home minister, Lee Sang-min, said police forces were overextended throughout the city on Saturday to deal with large anti-government and other protest rallies, which have grown in recent months. But, he said, “I doubt that the problem in Itaewon could have been solved even if we dispatched police and firefighters in advance.”
In a radio interview, Kim Gihyeon, a senior leader of President Yoon Suk Yeol’s governing People Power Party, said Mr. Lee should “watch his mouth,” and blamed the local police for failing to control the crowds.
On Monday evening, the police were still interviewing witnesses and scrutinizing reams of security camera footage.
They had expected a crowd of about 100,000 people each day during the Halloween weekend, but according to traffic data from the Seoul subway, 130,000 passengers used the station in Itaewon on Saturday, compared with 96,000 per day during the Halloween weekend in 2019 and 60,000 to 80,000 per day during the Halloween weekends during the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, only 85 officers were deployed.
Those eager to celebrate Halloween in Itaewon often travel to the neighborhood by subway to avoid the district’s infamous traffic jams. Subway Exit No. 1 disgorges hordes of passengers all at once. Many head straight to a nearby 10-foot-wide, 130-foot-long, sloping alleyway because it is a shortcut to the area’s hip bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
On Saturday by around 10 p.m., hundreds of people, most of them in their 20s and 30s, were caught there, barely able to breathe or move and with no way to escape. On one side was a line of bars and shops already packed with people who were unable to make room. On the other was the tall wall of the Hamilton Hotel.
Waves of people pushed up and down the slope, jostling to go in opposite directions, while music blaring from bars and clubs drowned out cries for help from those who were suffocating.
Crowd control experts say the police and local officials should have identified the alleyway as a dangerous bottleneck and taken precautions, but neither the police, the city of Seoul nor the central government had a crowd control plan in place. And with Halloween in Itaewon having no official sponsor, there were no organizers present to direct traffic.
“Hazards that don’t cause trouble individually can get deadly when they come together at the same time, in the same place,” said Prof. Yoon Yong-Kyun, an expert in disaster prevention at Semyung University in South Korea. “That’s what happened around that alleyway in Itaewon on Saturday night.”
It was a different scene when a government-sponsored food festival was held in Itaewon just weeks ago. The streets were blocked from vehicle traffic and a police line was established to direct pedestrians. No such measures were in place this past weekend for Halloween.
Disaster experts say the topography of Itaewon makes the neighborhood vulnerable to crowd problems. The part of Itaewon where the disaster happened was built when there was no city planning, and today, the hilly neighborhood is crisscrossed by narrow alleys lined with bars and restaurants.
The sloped alleyway that leads to Exit No. 1 of the subway station is often crowded, and on Saturday, costume vendors had set up shop, making pathways even more packed than usual.
Crowds like the one that gathered to celebrate Halloween can be “a blind spot in our public security, with no one taking responsibility for crowd control,” said Prof. Kong Hasung, a public disaster expert at Woosuk University in South Korea. Anticipating their size and knowing how to allocate resources can seem like guesswork.
But witnesses said it appeared to be a problem not just of planning but of execution.
Survivors said they saw few officers trying to control the crowd around the alleyway as people pressed down the slope chanting, “Push! Push!” — causing those in front of them to topple “like dominoes.”
If the police find that people deliberately set off the crowd surge by instigating others to push, they may seek to bring criminal charges, said Prof. Yeom Gun Woong, a criminal law expert at U1 University’s Department of Police and Fire Administration. He said the victims could also try to sue for damages from the government for failing to prevent the disaster.
Seo Na-yeon, 14, who visited Itaewon on Saturday evening, said that she called the police twice when she saw people being pushed, but that no help arrived, even though the government’s nearest fire department and first-response center was only about 660 feet from the alley.
But, she said, she did see something else: police officers who appeared to be cracking down on street vendors hawking costumes and headbands, with none seeming to be managing the crowds. That was markedly different from the previous time she visited the area for Halloween in 2019, before the pandemic, when dozens of officers were directing people, she said.
On Monday, South Korea’s president said he would revamp the country’s safety system to empower the police to control crowds gathering without sponsors and organizers. Mr. Yoon also called for a thorough investigation to help prevent similar disasters.
“When I think of those who died and their families, I feel an indescribable sadness and responsibility as the president who should be responsible for the safety of the people,” he said.
Officials and organizers must learn to watch dense gatherings of people carefully, said Milad Haghani, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney who researches crowd safety.
“I really believe that we need to learn from past events and use those experiences from the past to prevent incidents such as what happened in Seoul,” Mr. Haghani said by email. “This was absolutely avoidable.”