By Soo-hyang Choi
SEOUL (Reuters) – Transcripts of the 11 emergency calls made in the hours and minutes before a Halloween party crush killed more than 150 people in Seoul reveal the growing fear of revellers and how they had urged the police to intervene.
The transcripts of emergency calls released by the police showed the first warning of a possible deadly surge was made at 6:34 p.m. on Saturday, roughly four hours before the crush turned deadly.
National Police Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun on Tuesday acknowledged crowd control at the scene was “inadequate”, noting that police had received multiple reports warning of possible accidents on the night of the disaster.
The interior minister and the city mayor have also apologised. Proper crowd and traffic control by the authorities could have prevented or at least reduced the surge of partygoers, safety experts have said.
The transcripts, released to media, give a chilling prediction of how the tragedy would unfold.
“Looks like you can get crushed to death with people keep coming up here while there’s no room for people to go down,” a citizen said in that first call. “I barely managed to leave but there are too many people, looks like you should come and control.”
The crush on Saturday night killed 156 people, many in their teens and 20s, and injured another 157 as revellers flooded the narrow alleyways of the popular Itaewon district to mark the first virtually unrestricted Halloween festivities in three years.
Police received 10 other similar calls before the chaos was known to have turned fatal – and released all those transcripts on Tuesday.
The transcripts appear to confirm the accounts of witnesses, who told Reuters they saw some police directing traffic on the main road but few or no officers in the crowded pedestrian alleyways and side streets.
Roughly 100,000 people were estimated to be in Itaewon on Saturday, an area known for its hills and narrow alleys. There were 137 police officers there at the time, the authorities have said.
“People are falling down on the streets, looks like there could be an accident, it looks very dangerous,” another caller said at 8:33 p.m, according to the police transcript.
The latest call released by the police came at 10:11 p.m., minutes before people packed into one particularly narrow and sloping alley began to fall over each other shortly before 10:30 p.m.
“(People) will get crushed to death here. It’s chaotic,” the transcript of that call says, noting that screams were heard over the phone.
Police went to the scene for four out of the 11 calls, a police official told reporters. It was not immediately clear why they did not deploy officials on the other calls or what safety measures they took after arriving.
“Those things are all under inspection now, so it’s difficult for me to answer at this point,” a National Police Agency official said when asked by Reuters about responding to four calls.
The official did not elaborate on the contents of the transcripts.
“The police will speedily and rigorously conduct intensive inspections and investigation on all aspects without exception to explain the truth of this accident,” police commissioner Yoon told a news conference earlier.
As police began investigating how so many people were killed, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said the probe would also cover whether government agencies’ on-site responses were appropriate.
President Yoon Suk-yeol has declared a week of national mourning, and called for better safety measures to manage crowds even when there is no central organising entity.
The festivities in Itaewon did not have a central organiser, which meant government authorities were not required to establish or enforce safety protocols.
The disaster is the country’s deadliest since a 2014 ferry sinking that killed 304 people, mainly high school students.
(Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi; Editing by Alison Williams)