Pleas for Help Went Unheeded for Hours in Deadly South Korea Crush

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SEOUL — The first, desperate call for help, warning of people at risk of being “squashed to death,” came at 6:34 p.m. on Saturday — nearly four hours before the South Korean authorities have said they received the initial report of a crowd crush that would kill more than 150 people.

It was the first of the 11 calls to the government’s 112 emergency response hotline that came in between then and 10:11 p.m., pleading with the police to take urgent action, whose transcripts were released through lawmakers on Tuesday. Later callers reported “utter chaos,” a situation “out of control” and people “being crushed to death,” according to transcripts released through lawmakers on Tuesday.

The transcripts exposed glaring failures by the authorities, and contradicted officials’ previous claims that the first report of the crowd crush came at 10:15 p.m. on Saturday. That raised questions about the government’s transparency in how it handled one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters.

The first caller described in detail how throngs of people disgorged from the subway station in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in central Seoul, were jamming into a narrow, sloping alleyway nearby. At the same time, people were also pressing down the pathway from the opposite direction, creating a deadly crowd crush.

“It looks like people are going to be squashed to death,” the caller said. “I myself just barely got out. There are so many people here, you must control the crowd.”

“I am so scared,” the caller added. “There is nobody out here to control the situation.”

On Tuesday, the national police chief Yoon Hee-keun admitted that his agency’s handling of 112 emergency calls was “inappropriate,” promising a thorough investigation. His boss, the home minister Lee Sang-min, offered the first explicit apology from government officials that they had not done enough to help prevent the disaster.

“The state’s responsibility for the safety of the people is unlimited,” Mr. Lee said and bowed during a parliamentary hearing. “I offer my sincere apology to the people over the incident.”

Until now, the government of President Yoon Suk Yeol has insisted that there was a limit to how aggressively it could control spontaneous crowds of partygoers on Halloween weekend in Itaewon. The Halloween festivities were not official events registered with the authorities for which the police must discuss and — if needed — provide safety measures, like crowd control, they said.

On Saturday evening, at least tens of thousands of boisterous young Koreans, freed at last of pandemic restrictions, surged into Itaewon 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.

But the transcripts show that in call after desperate call, people warned of a major disaster unfolding and urged the authorities to intervene, control the crowd and send rescue workers. They corroborated witnesses’ accounts that the crowd pressure was turning fatal hours before the authorities said they got the first report.

“There are so many people that there is a bottleneck. It’s utter chaos with people jostling,” a caller said at 8:09 p.m. “People are falling and hurt. It’s chaos. You should do something.”

“There are people fallen on the street and it’s out of control,” another caller said at 8:33 p.m. “This is serious and I am not kidding.”

At 9 p.m., a caller reported: “There are so many people that we are about to have a major incident. You should come and control the situation.”

“We are in the middle of a Halloween festival and people in there are being crushed to death,” a caller said at 9:10 p.m.

The emergency dispatchers on the line said that they were sending officers over. The government’s nearest fire station was only about 660 feet from the alley. The nearest police station was only 430 feet away.

But witnesses and survivors told news media, including The Times, that they had seen few officers at the scene to manage the crowd. By the time the crush turned deadly in the jam-packed alleyway, it was hard for officers to reach the victims through the crowd, according to smartphone footage released by witnesses.

The first firefighters and government rescuers finally arrived at the scene of the crowd crush at 10:29 p.m. They found a tangle of victims lying on top of each other.

“It took quite a time for us to extricate them and move them for emergency relief,” said Nam Hwa-young, acting chief of the national fire department. “We did not have enough rescue and relief officers so we had difficulties in dealing with the situation at the scene.”


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