South Korea PM urges police to explain response to Halloween crush emergency calls

POLICE OFFICERS walk at the scene where many people died and were injured in a stampede during a Halloween festival in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 30. — REUTERS

SEOUL — South Korea’s Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said on Wednesday police must explain how they responded after receiving multiple emergency calls in the hours before a Halloween party crush killed more than 150 people in Seoul. 

The disaster on Saturday night killed 156 and injured 172, leaving 33 in serious condition. At least 26 citizens from 14 countries were among the dead. 

“The police must conduct thorough inspections and provide a clear and transparent explanation to the public,” Mr. Han said at the televised beginning of a task force meeting on the disaster. 

Tens of thousands of young revelers had crowded into narrow streets and alleyways of the popular Itaewon district for the first Halloween festivities in three years virtually free of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) restrictions. 

Transcripts of emergency calls released by the police on Tuesday showed the first warning of a possible deadly crush roughly four hours before the disaster, with the caller requesting police dispatched to an alley where partygoers were already packed wall-to-wall. 

Police received 10 other similar calls, with the callers pleading with growing urgency and desperation. The final call was placed just minutes before people in the narrow and sloping alley began to fall over each other. 

The transcripts appear to confirm the accounts of witnesses, who told Reuters they saw some police directing traffic on the main road but few or no officers in the crowded pedestrian alleyways and side streets. 

Roughly 100,000 people were estimated to be in Itaewon on Saturday, an area known for its hills and narrow alleys. There were 137 police officers there at the time, the authorities have said. 

Police went to the scene for four out of the 11 calls, a police official told reporters. It was not immediately clear why they did not deploy officers on the other calls or what safety measures they took after arriving. 

“When someone dials 112, it is when the situation is very urgent and the help of police or action is desperately needed,” Mr. Han said, referring to South Korea’s emergency police hotline. 

The release of the transcripts fueled further criticism of missteps by the police that may have been a key factor leading up to the crush that has become the deadliest accident since a 2014 ferry sinking that killed 304 people, mainly high school students who drowned amid botched rescue operations. 

Opposition members of parliament called for the immediate dismissal of the national police chief and the interior minister. 

National Police Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun on Tuesday acknowledged crowd control at the scene was “inadequate” and promised a thorough internal investigation. — Reuters