Saturday, Oct. 29th, 2022, is a day I will never forget. It was the 31st anniversary of my mother’s passing. It was my niece’s wedding day. And it was the date of the tragic event in Itaewon that saw 150+ people killed in a crowd crush. 

Neither myself nor my family was anywhere near Itaewon on that night. As of writing this, I haven’t heard of any friends hurt or affected by the tragedy. I did learn that a friend’s 19-year-old daughter was in Itaewon that night. I’m glad to report she was unharmed.

This week’s blog is a diversion from my usual topics of English grammar, copywriting and personal updates. I may not be the most qualified to comment on this incident. But like many, I have thoughts and found myself wanting to get them out here. 

Disclaimer: The bulk of this post was written between October 30 and November 7 and may not reflect the most recent updates on the investigation.

What’s so special about Itaewon?

For those not familiar with Itaewon, it is a neighborhood in Seoul. It has traditionally been very popular among the foreign residents of Seoul. It sprung up due to its proximity to the Yongsan American army base (now relocated to Pyeongtaek). It was a place for US soldiers to let loose, with many Western-style bars, restaurants, and other ‘amenities’ often found near army bases. One end of Itaewon is often referred to as Hooker Hill.

Several friends at a local bar clinking beer mugs.

I am by no means an Itaewon expert. Years ago, while playing on a Sunday league football team, I frequented Itaewon bars on weekends with my teammates. We often went to the bar that sponsored our team after our Sunday games. However, I haven’t been there in years. In my experience, Itaewon used to be a very seedy area. But in recent years, it’s become more upscale. Now it boasts international restaurants and trendy clubs rather than the dive bars it was once famous for.

The rise in the popularity of Halloween in Korea

Whereas Itaewon was once the hangout of choice for ex-pats, it has become more popular with young Koreans. Koreans in their 20s have been going to Itaewon in greater numbers for the past several years. This is also true for Halloween. 

Years ago in Korea, only children at English academies and ex-pats celebrated Halloween. Halloween has never involved the trick-or-treating associated with the holiday in the West. But more and more young adult Koreans have been drawn to the costume side of Halloween. With ex-pats normalizing dressing up for Halloween in Itaewon, it became the go-to place.

Two years ago, on Halloween 2020, before COVID exploded in Korea, there were criticisms surrounding the crowds that flocked to Itaewon to celebrate Halloween. Last year, near the beginning of the ‘return to normal,’ Halloween was, by all accounts, a quiet affair. People were under threat of stiff penalties for breaching COVID social distancing rules. Among accusations that targeting Halloween celebrations were xenophobic, authorities tried to downplay those accusations.

A Halloween street party with a stormtrooper as the most prominent costume.

This year was the first time in a long time people could go out and celebrate Halloween unrestricted. In Korea, masks aren’t required outdoors, though they’re still required indoors. By all accounts, this year was expected to see bigger crowds than usual. Initial reports indicated there were fewer than 200 police officers in Itaewon this year. I haven’t been able to find numbers for how many police were deployed to Itaewon on Halloween in previous years. But I have read that the crowds this year weren’t larger than in the past.

So what happened and why? We still don’t know exactly…

Itaewon consists of one large main street and several small alleyways that branch off. It was in one of these alleyways, located on a short but somewhat steep hill that the incident occurred. Details have come out over the past weeks, painting a picture of what happened. Please refer to this Reuters article for a better understanding of what happened. It includes infographics and animations that explain how things occurred.

Most of Itaewon was crowded, but that alleyway became extremely packed. People were struggling to move and may have already had trouble breathing. Reports indicated that somewhere in the middle of this alleyway, some people fell. The crowd behind filled in this space. This caused people to either trample those who had fallen or pile up on top of them. People ended up piling up on top of those who had fallen.

A smart phone screen with a red background and the text "Emergency Call 24"

There are several reports of people in the midst of this calling 119 (the Korean equivalent of 911). They reported being unable to breathe and were pleading for help. Despite 800+ first responders being deployed and ambulances filling the main street, 150+ people died. More than 170 were injured—several critically.

Could this have been avoided?

My initial thoughts were that this was a freak accident. A tragic but unfortunate accident that may have been difficult to prevent. That was my initial assessment before the government claimed that as an unorganized event, it would’ve been difficult to prevent. As more information came out, I changed my mind.

Crowd crush tragedies most often occur at organized events. Crowd crushes are not uncommon at music concerts (i.e., NCT 127’s recent concert in Jakarta). The Hillsborough disaster in 1989 occurred at a football stadium. But the tragedy that happened in Itaewon was not an organized event at a venue that can control entrants. Itaewon is a neighborhood. It would’ve been challenging to cordon off access to the area completely. As such, it would’ve been almost impossible to assess numbers in the neighborhood. But that doesn’t mean nothing could’ve been done.

A shot from behind of a Korean riot police person standing in the middle of the street.

Reports state that there was no discernible crowd control in Itaewon on this night. I’ve read that in the past, police officers blocked off and controlled access to several smaller alleyways. They had an organized plan to deal with the anticipated influx of people. Several witnesses have noted a complete lack of crowd control this year.

It appears there were far fewer than 200 officers deployed that night. It is unclear if the 137 police officers deployed were more or less than in the past. It has also emerged that only 58 uniformed police officers were in the area. The remaining officers were in plain clothes, looking for petty crimes and drug offenses. I haven’t found any reports of any such arrests made that night.

Another major criticism has been that the city deployed 6,500 officers to a candlelight protest in Gwanghwamun that day. Approximately 25,000 people attended that rally. That’s one-quarter the number of people in Itaewon but 47x as many police officers.

“We understand that it was not a problem that could have been solved by deploying police or firefighters in advance” ~ Lee Sang-min, Minister of the Interior and Safety

Authorities are claiming there was no way this event could’ve been predicted. That appears to be an outright lie. It is no secret that Itaewon gets very busy on the weekend closest to Halloween. Despite social distancing measures, Itaewon has been busy on Halloween for the past two years. Some reports suggest the crowd was much bigger in 2017.

A smartphone displaying the icons for Instagram, Facebook and Twitter

There was apparently a fair amount of buzz on social media about people planning to head to Itaewon for Halloween. Seoul City Hall has a real-time crowd monitoring system that draws data from cell phone locations. This system can predict crowd sizes up to 12 hours in advance. It was not used. The subway station wasn’t closed, a tactic often used when crowd numbers surge in certain areas. Despite deploying this tactic in the past, it was not used this year.

Was there an overreaction to the tragedy?

Many organizations, venues, and English academies canceled Halloween-themed events the day after the incident. I saw comments online that this was an overreaction, attempting to vilify Halloween. This may have been a knee-jerk reaction based on the somewhat xenophobic reporting surrounding Halloween celebrations last year.

I saw those decisions as more of a sign of respect. Following one of the largest tragedies in recent Korean history, any kind of celebration seemed callous. A 1-week national period of mourning was declared. Emotions were raw. Many other events were canceled or postponed out of respect. My son’s university festival was pushed back a week so as not to occur during the national week of mourning.

Several weeks have passed since this horrific incident. I’ve yet to see any stories or read any comments about the backlash against the ‘foreign’ celebration of Halloween or ex-pats in general. Most of the outrage has been focused on determining why the government/police weren’t better prepared.

What do I hope will happen as a result of this tragedy?

It’s natural for the victims’ families, witnesses, and the public to want someone to blame. It’s human nature to want to assign blame—it gives us a place to direct our anger. 

An Asian woman grasping her hair with a very frustrated expression on her face.

Could the police have had a more significant presence? Definitely. Should the police have better estimated the number of people who’d show up? It would appear so. Should there have been a more organized effort to enforce crowd control? Absolutely. Could this tragedy have been avoided? I believe so.

So who should get the blame? Should it be the head of the Yongsan police department, which has jurisdiction over Itaewon? Should it be Lee Sang-min, Minister of the Interior and Safety? Should it be the Seoul City government? I don’t know. I don’t know which individuals or groups made the decisions that resulted in the horrible tragedy. But the government’s claims that this couldn’t have been predicted or prevented don’t hold water. 

More police should’ve been on hand. Streets and alleyways should’ve been cordoned off. The subway station should’ve been closed. There should’ve been a much more coordinated plan for crowd control. Someone made the decision not to do those things. That person (or persons) should be held accountable.

Several strands of police tape, indicating an area has been cordoned off

While assigning blame may help us deal with tragedies, it doesn’t do anything to bring the victims back. Nor does it do anything to prevent the same thing from happening in the future. We have to look at the tragedy and learn from the mistakes that were made. We must enact changes that will reduce the chances of this happening again.

Furthermore, the drive to assign blame doesn’t always help understand the truth. On Friday, November 11, a Yongsan police station officer was found dead from an apparent suicide. He was being investigated for deleting an internal report warning of public safety dangers during Halloween. Some reports indicate he was ordered to delete the report in question and that he didn’t act of his own volition. Without the ability to defend himself, we may never know if he was guilty or if he was being made the scapegoat.

We can take more responsibility for our own safety

I’m going to state my next point very carefully. I am in no way blaming any of the victims for what happened. I am not blaming anyone for going to Itaewon on that night. I have no doubt that things escalated quickly. Anyone part of that moving crowd couldn’t have done anything to avoid the tragedy that occurred.

But I have seen comments by friends and other ex-pats online about Halloween in Itaewon. Upon arriving in Itaewon, they sensed it was dangerous, overcrowded, and unsafe. They left immediately. If my son had informed me he’d been planning to go to Itaewon, I would’ve insisted that he not go. I’ve seen the videos of past Halloweens in Itaewon. 

A very crowded subway platform

If I’d gone to Itaewon that night, after seeing how crowded the subway station was, I would’ve turned around and left. I used to worry when my wife went to the peaceful candlelight protests in 2016. The crowds grew bigger each week, and I was always worried about her safety in such large crowds. Though the protests were peaceful, I was always worried about the possibility of something going wrong. These things tend to happen in an instant, with little to no warning.

Visitors to Korea often comment on the generally lackadaisical approach to safety. Let me tread carefully. My home country, Canada, is not without fault. But in general, I would say that Canada takes safety more seriously than Korea. If anything, countries like Canada have swung too far to the side of caution. Activities like ‘tag’ have been banned from schoolyards for being too dangerous.

An elderly Korean woman walking in the street despite the presence of a sidewalk immediately to her right.
This elderly woman just illegally crossed the street and continued to walk in the road, despite there being a sidewalk just to her right, seemingly unaware that she was putting herself (and the drivers) in danger.

But to the Western eye, Koreans generally seem less aware or concerned about potential danger. For example:

  • People that take their chances crossing 8-lane roads without crosswalks or lights
  • Apartment building painters who sit on a single board and literally swing back and forth as they spray paint the side of buildings with no discernable safety harness or backup ropes
  • Children, free to roam about cars and stick their heads out of sunroofs as the car they’re in hurtles down the expressways at 100 km/h

These are all things I’ve seen on more than one occasion. 

This is how apartments get painted in Korea. A single rope, with no apparent backups for safety.

While editing this post, my wife was watching a show about traffic accidents in Korea. An expert shows clips captured by dashboard cams (known as black boxes in Korea). The panel then attempts to determine whether the driver was at fault.

One example showed someone driving at about 5–10 km/h in an apartment complex. A child bolted from between two parked cars and bounced off the hood of the car. Other examples showed adults bolting across roads from between parked cars. In these instances, the drivers couldn’t have done much (if anything) to avoid the accidents. The pedestrians should’ve been more aware of the dangers of emerging from between parked cars in that fashion.

I remember seeing a reality show about Bondi beach a while ago. In one scene, lifeguards had to rescue a male Korean tourist who’d gone too far from shore and was in danger of drowning. The lifeguards were quite upset that this person who couldn’t swim hadn’t been more careful. 

A surfboard with the word Lifeguard on it rests against a sign that says  Dangerous Currents.

The lifeguards tried to impress upon him and his female companion how close he’d come to dying. They both nervously laughed it off. This only infuriated the lifeguards further, who’d put their own lives at risk to save his. They commented that this was a common occurrence with Asian tourists. Many of them couldn’t swim yet failed to recognize the danger they’d put themselves in.

I’ve also read that perhaps people didn’t realize the potential dangers in Itaewon because people in Seoul are used to being in crowds. Anyone who has to take the subway during rush hour is well-acquainted with overcrowding. This is unsurprising given that Seoul has the 6th highest population density in the world. Despite being a common phenomenon, that doesn’t mean people can’t be aware of potential dangers.

The government and the police have a responsibility to protect the members of society. But we can increase our safety by taking a more active role in keeping ourselves safe. 

Let’s never forget this tragedy, but let’s learn from it so nothing like this ever happens again

So instead of pointing fingers and banning Halloween, I’d rather see the government use this as a painful learning experience. This event was no doubt a horrific tragedy. It was an unfortunate occurrence that most likely could’ve been prevented. Considering the number of people and the narrow alleys, it’s amazing that there was only one such horrific event that night.

Three fingers pointing from the left and three fingers pointing from the right, as if assigning blame.

As a society, we tend to have short memories. After the Sampoong Department store collapse and the Seongsu bridge collapse, there was a renewed focus on construction safety in Korea. But there have been at least two construction site accidents involving structure collapses in Gwangju in recent years. In early November, a KORAIL railway worker was killed. KORAIL faces investigations for violating the new workplace safety law that went into effect in January.

The incident in Itaewon was a horrific tragedy. I can’t imagine what the families and friends of the victims are going through. I’m not sure if any one person can be blamed, but surely there are people that should be held accountable. I hope that, as a country, Korea doesn’t only look to assign blame but rather seeks to learn from this horrific event.

We should expect the government and the police to do everything they can to protect us. But we can take more responsibility for our own safety by better assessing our environment more critically. I doubt anyone has gotten a ticket in Korea for driving at 100 km/h in heavy rain. But common sense suggests that drivers should reduce their speed in such conditions. Perhaps one of the best ways to honor the victims of this tragedy is to place a greater focus on safety, both from an administrative and individual perspective.

We can do a better job of educating children about safety. We can emphasize focusing on safety as a society. Let’s hold those responsible for creating the unsafe conditions that led to this tragedy accountable. But let’s also take it upon ourselves to take charge of our own safety. Let’s do everything we can to ensure we never have to witness another tragedy like this again.

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