South Korea's police chief accepted "a heavy responsibility" for failing to prevent a crowd surge that killed more than 150 people during Halloween festivities in Seoul.
Yoon Hee Keun, commissioner general of the Korean National Police Agency, said on Tuesday that officers did not effectively handle earlier emergency calls about the impending disaster.
The admission came as the South Korean government faces growing public scrutiny over whether the crowd surge Saturday night in Seoul's Itaewon district -- a popular nightlife neighbourhood -- could have been prevented and who should take responsibility for the country's worst disaster in years.
"I feel a heavy responsibility as the head of one of related government offices," Yoon told a televised news conference. "Police will do their best to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again."
Yoon said an initial investigation had found that there were many urgent calls by citizens notifying authorities about the potential danger of a crowd gathering in Itaewon, but officers who had received those calls did not respond to them in a satisfactory manner.
Yoon said police have subsequently launched an intense internal probe to look deeper into the officers' handling of the emergency calls and other issues like their on-the-spot response to the crowd surge in Itaewon that night.
The disaster — which left at least 156 people dead and 151 others injured — was concentrated in a downhill, narrow alley in Itaewon.
Witnesses described people falling on one another, suffering severe breathing difficulties and falling unconscious.
They also recalled rescuers and ambulances failed to reach the cramped alleys in time because the entire Itaewon area was extremely packed with slow-moving vehicles and a crowd of partygoers clad in Halloween costumes.
During a Cabinet council meeting Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol also acknowledged that South Korea lacks research on crowd management.
He called for using drones and other high-tech resources to develop an effective crowd control capability, adding that the government will soon hold a meeting with experts to review overall national safety rules.
The crowd surge is South Korea's deadliest disaster since the 2014 ferry sinking that killed 304 people and exposed the country's lax safety rules and regulatory failures.
Death toll could rise
Saturday's crowd surge has raised public questions about what South Korea has done to prevent human-made disasters.
After the Itaewon disaster, police launched a 475-member task force to find its cause.
Senior police officer Nam Gu-Jun told reporters Monday that officers have obtained videos taken by about 50 security cameras in the area and were analyzing video clips posted on social media.
Nam said police have also interviewed more than 40 witnesses and survivors so far.
Police said they had sent 137 officers to maintain order during Halloween festivities on Saturday, much more than the 34-90 officers mobilised in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before the pandemic.
But some observers questioned whether the 137 officers were enough to handle the estimated 100,000 people gathered Saturday in Itaewon.
Adding more questions about the role of police was the fact that they sent 7,000 officers to another part of Seoul earlier Saturday to monitor duelling protests involving tens of thousands of people.
Police also acknowledged that the 137 officers dispatched to Itaewon were primarily assigned to monitor crime, with a particular focus on narcotics use — not crowd control.
The death toll could rise as officials said that 29 injured were in serious condition. The dead included 26 foreign nationals from France, Austria, Norway, Russia, the US and elsewhere.
President Yoon asked officials to provide the same government support to the bereaved families of the foreign victims as to South Korean dead and injured people.
He also thanked many world leaders for sending condolences over the disaster.
The Itaewon area, known for its expat-friendly, cosmopolitan atmosphere, is the country's hottest spot for Halloween-themed events and parties, with young South Koreans taking part in costume competitions at bars, clubs and restaurants.
Saturday's gathering was the biggest Halloween celebration in the area since the pandemic began.
Halloween festivities in Itaewon have no official organisers. South Korean police said Monday they do not have any specific procedures for handling incidents such as crowd surges during an event that has no coordinators.