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Investigators raid offices of Seoul police and others over Halloween crowd disaster

Two people wearing bucket hats stand, with their hands together, before piles of white flowers
People pray for victims of the Halloween crowd crush that killed 156 people in Seoul over the weekend.
(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)
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South Korea’s National Police Agency on Wednesday raided local police departments in the capital, Seoul, and the city’s Yongsan district office as it investigates whether official ineptitude contributed to a deadly crowd surge that killed 156 people in the neighborhood of Itaewon.

The raids came a day after the national agency acknowledged that Seoul police failed to act for hours despite receiving at least 11 emergency calls from pedestrians warning about a swelling crowd of Halloween revelers getting out of control before the crush Saturday in a narrow alley near Hamilton Hotel.

The national agency said members of its special investigation unit were retrieving documents and other materials from the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency and Yongsan’s police station, district office, fire department and other offices.

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Local officials and police have faced sharp questions about why they didn’t employ crowd controls or sufficient personnel in the small nightlife district despite anticipating a crowd of 100,000 after the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in
recent months.

The national police chief, Yoon Hee-keun, also acknowledged Tuesday that initial investigations found that police officers failed to effectively handle calls notifying authorities about the potential danger of the crowd gathering in Itaewon.

Yoon said police have launched an intense internal inquiry into the officers’ handling of the emergency calls and other issues, including the on-the-spot response to the crowd surge in Itaewon that night.

Some say a cultural gap between South Korea’s elder and younger generations may have contributed to inadequate security at a crowded Halloween event.

Oct. 30, 2022

His agency also released the transcripts of 11 calls placed to the police’s 112 emergency hotline by pedestrians in Itaewon on Saturday. The first one was made around 6:30 p.m., about four hours before the crush near Hamilton Hotel.

The unidentified caller, who was in front of a convenience store at the same alley where the crush occurred, pleaded for police to enforce controls in the area because “too many people are going up and down and it’s too scary.”

“People aren’t able to come down but [people] are also pushing up and I think [they] could get crushed to death,” the caller said.

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In transcripts of the 11 calls, the callers used the Korean word meaning “crushed to death” 13 different times to convey their concerns.

South Korea’s interior minister and emergency office chief, the Seoul mayor and the head of the Yongsan ward office, which governs Itaewon, have all offered public apologies.

As of Wednesday, 156 people were confirmed dead and 157 were being treated for injuries after they were trampled in a crowd surge centered in a narrow alley that runs between the hotel and a dense row of storefronts.

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