South Korea’s police chief has apologised for an “inadequate” emergency response to Saturday’s deadly Halloween crush in Seoul, as the first memorial services were held amid growing public anger over what some called a “man-made disaster”.

Police chief Yoon Hee-keun said on Tuesday: “We’ve judged that the response to the emergency calls was inadequate”, noting the large number of calls placed before the disaster.

Announcing an independent investigation, Yoon said: “We will thoroughly check the facts to see whether we took proper actions after receiving emergency reports informing us of the danger in advance.”

The death toll from Saturday’s crowd crush during Halloween celebrations in the nightlife district of Itaewon rose to 156 on Tuesday.

The belongings of victims of the deadly Halloween crush in Itaewon are shown at a gym in Seoul, South Korea.
The belongings of victims of the deadly Halloween crush in Itaewon are shown at a gym in Seoul, South Korea. Photograph: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

A Buddhist ceremony was held at a funeral hall in Suwon on Tuesday for an office worker who died in what is one of South Korea’s worst postwar disasters. The victim’s mother and sister held hands and comforted each other while listening to chants and the sound of a wooden bell.

The previous day, students in school uniforms had come to pray for their fallen classmate. Among the dead was a middle school student, who had joined the Halloween festivities with her mother and aunt. They became caught up in the crowd surge. None of them survived. After paying their respects, some students sat on the floor in the hallway and sobbed.

At a makeshift altar set up in front of Seoul’s city hall, several citizens heckled government officials and politicians as they came to pay their respects.

Many young people came to the memorial site. Choi Ji-yoon, 22, told the Guardian that most of the victims were her age or younger, so they did not feel like strangers. “I wanted to commemorate them,” she said. The majority of those killed were young women.

Several factors are being blamed for the disaster, including a lack of preventive measures and crowd control due to the absence of an organising body for Halloween. That night, an estimated 100,000 people descended on Itaewon in Seoul’s Yongsan district. Only 137 officers were on the scene, mostly for traffic and crime prevention.

People mourn at a group memorial set up at Seoul City Hall Plaza.
People mourn at a group memorial set up at Seoul City Hall Plaza. Photograph: Heo Ran/Reuters

Newspaper, the Hankyoreh, said in an editorial on Tuesday that the Itaewon disaster was “predictable,” stemming from “a lack of a safety management manual in the event of a crowd crushing accident and authorities’ complacent response”.

While South Korea has a safety manual for festivals with more than 1,000 attendees, the manual assumes an organising body is in charge of safety planning, which was not the case on Saturday.

In a Yongsan district meeting held days before the disaster, the conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo said that “virtually no safety measures were prepared”.

“The damage could have been minimised and crowds spread out had the police and local government set up safety plans to block traffic to Itaewon-ro [the main street], which connects to the alleyway where the accident occurred. It could have also taken measures to make the subway not stop [at Itaewon station].”

South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol has instructed the government to come up with a crowd control system for spontaneous events that have no organisers. He also called on his cabinet to take “heavy responsibility”.

The interior minister expressed regret on Tuesday for previously stating that more police would not have prevented the tragedy.

Collective trauma is setting in as South Koreans come to terms with what has happened. On Tuesday, the prime minister, Han Duck-soo, promised that the government would provide psychological support to all citizens affected by the tragedy, regardless of whether they were in Itaewon at the time.

A high school teacher in Gyeonggi province who did not wish to be identified told the Guardian that she recently taught a class about various holidays such as Halloween so students could learn about cultural diversity.

On Monday morning, the students removed all Halloween decorations they had put up last Friday, even though no one had asked them to. “Everyone, both students and teachers, are extremely sad,” she said, saying that it reminded her of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, which killed 304 people, most of them high school students.

“I am sorry and feel guilty that our promise to create a safe country was not kept.”





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