By Joyce Lee
SEOUL (Reuters) - Proper crowd and traffic control by South Korean authorities could have prevented or at least reduced the surge of Halloween party-goers in alleys that led to a crush and the deaths of 154 people, safety experts said on Monday.
The annual festivities in the popular nightlife area of Itaewon in Seoul also did not have a central organising entity, which meant government authorities were not required to establish or enforce safety protocols.
District authorities for Yongsan, where Itaewon is located, discussed measures to prevent illegal drug use and the spread of COVID-19 during the Halloween weekend, according to a district press release. There was, however, no mention of crowd control.
On Saturday when the tragedy occurred, roughly 100,000 people were estimated to be in Itaewon, an area known for its hills and narrow alleys. According to Seoul Metro, some 81,573 people disembarked at Itaewon subway station on the day, up from around 23,800 a week earlier and about 35,950 on Friday.
But there were only 137 police officers in Itaewon at the time, the city of Seoul said.
In contrast, at rallies by labour unions and by supporters of President Yoon Suk-yeol that drew tens of thousands in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on the same Saturday, up to 4,000 police were deployed, a police official said.
"Police are now working on a thorough analysis of the incident's cause," Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min said on Monday.
"It's not appropriate to make hasty conclusions before the exact cause is determined - whether it was caused by a lack of police or whether there is something that we should fundamentally change for rallies and gatherings."
President Yoon has called for a thorough investigation into the cause of the crush as well as improvements in safety measures that can be used for large gatherings where there is no set organiser.
While South Korea has a safety manual for festivals expected to attract more than 1,000 people, the manual presupposes an organising body in charge of safety planning and requesting government resources.
Just two weeks earlier, the Itaewon Global Village Festival organised by a tourism association and sponsored by the city of Seoul and Yongsan district, had people wearing yellow vests directing the flow of movement and the main road was closed to car traffic.
But on Saturday, there were just thousands of shops open for business, normal car traffic rules and tens of thousands of young people eager to celebrate Halloween without major COVID restrictions for the first time since the pandemic.
"Just because it's not named a 'festival' doesn't mean there should be any difference in terms of disaster management," said Paek Seung-joo, a professor of fire & disaster protection at Open Cyber University of Korea.
"As there was no central authority, each government arm just did what they usually do - the fire department prepared for fires and the police prepared for crime. There needs to be a system where a local government takes the reins and cooperates with other authorities to prepare for the worst," he said.
Moon Hyeon-cheol, a professor at the Graduate School of Disaster Safety Management at Soongsil University, said this type of crush had the potential to happen in any populous city.
"We need to take this tragedy and learn to prepare for the risk of disaster," he said.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Soo-hyang Choi; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)