SEOUL, South Korea – Police admitted making mistakes on Monday as South Korea searched for answers about how Halloween festivities in the country’s capital turned into a deadly crush.
President Yoon Suk Yeol led mourners to pay tribute at Seoul sites dedicated to the more than 150 people who died. His government promised to conduct a thorough investigation into the disaster, the deadliest in years in the country.
Tens of thousands of people had gathered in Itaewon – a nightlife area of the capital popular with foreigners – on Saturday when a crowd began in a sloping and narrow alleyway, triggering a deadly panic.
Many of the revelers were in their teens and 20s and dressed in costume for the country’s first Halloween celebration without Covid restrictions in three years.
The death toll in the disaster rose by one Monday morning to 154, including two Americans and 24 other foreigners. All but one of the victims have been identified, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said. The number of injured also rose to 149, 33 of them in serious condition.
At memorials in the city, mourners left traditional white chrysanthemums, as well as snacks, soft drinks and bottled beer and the Korean liqueur soju. In Itaewon, two Buddhist monks sang and performed rituals all afternoon.
The country’s president, who has declared a week-long national mourning period, paid his respects to the victims at a memorial near City Hall. A second memorial has been erected at a site in Itaewon.
“I am overwhelmed with grief and responsibility as a president responsible for the lives and safety of our people when I think of the grieving families suffering the loss of their loved ones,” Yoon said at a rally before he opened the memorial on Monday. visited. “My heart breaks at the tragic loss, especially of the young people, whose dreams can’t see the light now.”
During the meeting, Yoon ordered the government to cover the victims’ funeral and medical costs. Officials urged the public not to spread false information, hate speech or graphic video of the stage while investigating exactly what happened.
Police said they launched a 475-member task force to investigate the crush. Police had obtained videos captured by about 50 security cameras in the area and also analyzed video clips posted on social media, senior police officer Nam Gu-Jun told reporters. They had interviewed more than 40 witnesses and survivors so far, Nam said Monday.
Witnesses suggested there was insufficient police presence to control the crowd, which may have been larger than expected.
A senior police official refuted that suggestion, but said authorities had not foreseen the possibility of a deadly crush.
“The intention was that a large number of people would gather there. But we did not expect major casualties due to the gathering of many people,” Hong Ki-hyun, chief of the public order office of the National Police, told reporters on Monday.
“I was told that police officers at the scene did not notice a sudden surge in the crowd,” he said, adding, “I regret the error in the assessment of these officers.”
According to Hong, 137 police officers were deployed to Itaewon on Saturday, compared to 37 to 90 officers in the three years before the start of the pandemic.
“The focus was on traffic control, crime prevention and illegal activities and not on the safety of the crowds on the streets and in narrow alleys,” he said. Hong added that the police had no manual for situations like the Halloween festivities, which had no central organizer, and that they would learn from the disaster.
As a team of police officers and government forensic experts searched the area for answers about where the massive wave started and how it developed, experts said the ultimate problem was not checking the number of people allowed in the area.
“There’s a finite number of people that can fit into any space,” Keith Still, a professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk, told NBC News.
“Anyone moving or trying to get out, once they’ve passed that safety threshold, there’s very little they can do. It’s up to the people who manage and plan the spaces,” he said.
Although Halloween is not a traditional holiday in South Korea, Itaewon is known for its costume parties in bars and clubs, which have become extremely popular in recent years.
Football coach Kerem Kerimoglu was one of the thousands who gathered there on Saturday.
With each passing hour, he says he’s even more concerned that he hasn’t heard from the two friends he was separated from during the wave. “I’m worried if they’re dead. The government has not yet shown the people ID,” he said.
Kerimoglu, 27, lives about a mile from Itaewon’s main street. He said he returned to the scene on Sunday evening to see dozens of mourners, dressed in black, gathered around a makeshift memorial site, offering white flowers.
“They gave everyone free flowers. I also took one and put flowers and remembered that day,” Kerimoglu said via Instagram, adding that the air smelled like “death.”
“I got goosebumps when I put the flowers on the floor,” he said.
The crowd surge is the deadliest peacetime accident in the country since the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014. That accident, which killed 304 people, also affected mostly young people.
Stella Kim and Thomas Maresca reported from Seoul. Jennifer Jett and Mithil Aggarwal reported from Hong Kong.