South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol has apologised for the deadly Halloween crowd crush in Seoul, promising to hold to account officials who failed to respond effectively to the tragedy.
Yoon offered the apology on Monday during a meeting to review safety rules as the country mourns the 156 crush victims, most of whom were women and young people in their twenties and thirties.
“I do not dare to compare myself to the parents who lost their sons and daughters, but as the president who ought to protect the people’s lives and safety, I am heartbroken,” he said.
“I am sorry and apologetic to the bereaved families who are suffering an unspeakable tragedy, and to the people who share the pain and sorrow.”
The crush happened on October 29, when revellers celebrating Halloween flooded the narrow alleyways of Seoul’s Itaewon district to celebrate the first COVID-19 curbs-free Halloween in three years.
The 156 victims included at least 26 foreigners. A further 197 people were injured.
Police have faced stringent public criticism and scrutiny over their response during the tragedy, having dispatched just 137 officers to the area despite estimating in advance as many as 100,000 people would gather.
Last week, transcripts of several emergency calls made in the hours leading up to the accident showed that people had warned of a potential crush and urged intervention.
The first of the 11 reports came nearly four hours before the disaster, with one person reporting fearing being “almost crushed to death” and asking for police help to control the crowd. An hour before the tragedy, another person called to say, “We are on the verge of a terrible accident due to massive crowds.”
The Yonhap news agency said police issued a “Code 0” for one of the reports, calling for the promptest possible response, and applied the second highest “Code 1” to seven others, but officers failed to take appropriate action.
Yoon, who had initially blamed the country’s crowd management and safety regulations for the tragedy, rebuked the police following the reports of the call transcripts.
At Monday’s safety meeting, the president pledged to overhaul the national safety management system, carry out a thorough investigation and bring those responsible for failings to account.
“In particular, extensive reform is needed in the police work, which is essential to preparing for danger and preventing accidents, in order to protect the safety of the people,” Yoon said.
He also promised to make sure the “truth is thoroughly determined”.
“In line with the results, I will strictly demand accountability from those responsible,” he added.