South Korean police investigators have raided law enforcement and emergency response offices in the capital, Seoul, as part of an investigation into the deaths of more than 150 people who were crushed to death during Halloween celebrations.
The raids on Wednesday came as demands mounted for South Korean police to explain why they took little action despite receiving multiple emergency calls about dangerous crowd levels up to four hours before a crush killed 156 people on Saturday night.
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A special investigation unit retrieved documents and other materials from the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency and from Yongsan’s police station, district office, fire department, and the headquarters of Seoul Metro, South Korea’s official Yonhap News Agency reported.
The Itaewon entertainment area, where the tragedy unfolded, is located in the city’s Yongsan district.
Anger has followed the publication of transcripts of emergency calls sent to police showing that in the four hours before the crowd surge turned deadly, police had received 11 reports of dangerous crowding in the Itaewon area.
Police responded to four of the 11 reports by deploying officers to the sites to disperse crowds. Once dispersed, the officers returned to other duties and no action was taken in the case of the seven remaining emergency calls, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
“A ‘Code 0’ police order calling for the promptest possible response had been issued for one of the 11 reports while the second-highest ‘Code 1’ had been applied to seven others, but police officers failed to take appropriate action,” Yonhap reported.
Transcripts of the emergency calls warned in stark terms of the situation unfolding in the 3.2-metre-wide alley in the Itaewon area, where 156 people died after a crowd surge trapped the mostly young revellers who began to fall and pile up on each other. More than 150 others were injured, including 29 who remain in serious condition.
The first person to file a report four hours before the tragedy unfolded had urged police to take action and control the crowds, Yonhap reported.
“I feel like I would be almost crushed to death here because people continued to come up even though no more can go down … I barely escaped, but police need to control the area because the crowd is too big,” according to an extract from the emergency report published by Yonhap.
(LEAD) (News Focus) Police under fire for lax response to emergency calls hours before Itaewon crush https://t.co/FcnrtCnVTK
— Yonhap News Agency (@YonhapNews) November 2, 2022
Police deployed to the scene but “closed the case without tangible action”, the news agency said.
A second report was received 90 minutes later informing police that “there are people who fell over and got hurt because there are too many people”, according to Yonhap.
Other reports to police, more than an hour before the tragedy, conveyed the urgency of the situation: “We are on the verge of a terrible accident due to the massive crowds”, and another, “I am almost being crushed to death”.
Yonhap said South Korea’s National Police Agency had voluntarily released the transcripts of the police reports from the night of the accident to demonstrate a willingness “to get to the bottom of the truth”.
‘Inadequate’ police response
An inquiry into the police handling of the Halloween night tragedy will be launched shortly, with the possibility of the probe becoming a criminal investigation if police officers are found to have acted negligently, Yonhap said.
South Korea’s Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said on Wednesday that police needed to explain their actions, the Reuters news agency reported.
“The police must conduct thorough inspections and provide a clear and transparent explanation to the public,” Han said at the televised beginning of a task force meeting on the disaster.
Officials with South Korea’s opposition Democratic Party also called on Wednesday for both police and government officials to take responsibility for the public safety failings that led to the deadly event.
A presidential official also told Yonhap on Wednesday that President Yoon Suk-yeol was enraged by the lack of action by police in responding to the 11 calls and reports of dangerous crowding in Itaewon.
On Tuesday, South Korea’s National Police Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun said he felt “limitless responsibility about public safety over this accident”.
The police commissioner acknowledged that multiple reports had been received by police telling of the “seriousness” of the situation before the tragedy unfolded and that the handling of the information had been “inadequate”.
South Korea’s interior minister Lee Sang-min and Seoul’s Mayor Oh Se-hoon have also apologised.
The Halloween celebrations in Itaewon were not an official event and did not have a central organiser, which meant authorities were not required to establish or enforce official safety protocols.