Seoul, South Korea — South Korean police are seeking criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter and negligence, against 23 officers, about half of whom are law enforcement officers, for the lack of security measures they believe was responsible forwhich killed nearly 160 people, including .
Despite anticipating a weekend crowd of more than 100,000, Seoul police deployed 137 officers to the capital’s Itaewon night district on the day of the disturbance. These officers focused on monitoring drug use and violent crime, which left little resources for pedestrian safety, according to experts.
Son Je-han, who led the National Police Agency’s special investigation into the incident, said on Friday that his team would now refer the case to prosecutors. Among those recommended for indictment are Park Hee-young, who is the mayor of Seoul’s Yongsan District, and former county police chief Lee Im-jae, two of the six arrested.
Lee was also accused of falsifying a police report to conceal his late arrival at the scene. Two other police officers were arrested on suspicion that they had attempted to destroy computer files and other potential evidence related to the incident.
The results of the 74-day police investigation announced by Son mostly confirmed what was already clear – that police and government officials in Yongsan failed to apply meaningful crowd control measures to the expected number of Halloween revelers and essentially ignored pedestrian calls to police hotlines that warned of the growing crowd hours before the wave turned deadly on October 28.
Officials also botched their response as people began to tip over and crush in a narrow alley clogged with partygoers near the Hamilton Hotel around 10 p.m., failing to effectively control the scene and allow rescuers to reach the injured in time, Son said.
“(Their) inaccurate assessment of the situation, slow dissemination of information about the situation, poor cooperation between related institutions and delays in rescue operations were among the overlapping failures that resulted in a large number of casualties,” Son said at a press conference in Seoul.
Son said his team interviewed nearly 540 people and collected 14,000 pieces of evidence from central and city government offices and transportation authorities. He said investigators analyzed more than 180 video files recorded by security cameras or taken by journalists and pedestrians, then jointly examined the scene with forensic experts to analyze crowd density.
Police said the crowd filling the corridor-like alley between the hotel and the dense row of shop windows grew around 9pm falling and tipping over like dominoes, leading to a tragedy that left 158 people dead and 196 injured.
Analysis of security camera footage and simulations by the National Forensic Service indicate that the crowd density in the alley was about eight people per square foot around 10:15 p.m. Density increased to eight to nine people occupying the same unit of space from 10:20 p.m. and around 9 to 11 people from 10:25 p.m., police said.
Paramedics had a hard time reaching the scene because the area was so densely packed. Those who arrived were so overwhelmed by the large number of people lying motionless on the ground that they asked pedestrians for help in performing resuscitation. Most of the deaths were caused by asphyxiation or brain damage, according to police.
It is unclear whether the results of the police investigation will be enough to appease public anger and demands for government accountability as the country continues to grapple with its worst disaster in nearly a decade.
Opposition lawmakers and some relatives of the victims demanded an investigation into more high-profile figures such as Home and Security Minister Lee Sang-min and National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun who were called to resign.
However, Son said the special investigation team would close its investigations with the Ministry of Interior and Security, the National Police Agency and the Seoul Metropolitan Government, saying it was difficult to determine their direct responsibility.
Some experts have called the congestion in Itaewon a “man-made disaster” that could have been prevented with fairly simple steps, such as hiring more police and public employees to monitor bottlenecks, enforcing one-way lanes and blocking narrow paths, or temporarily closing Itaewon’s stations subway to prevent large numbers of people from moving in the same direction.
The Americans who lost their lives include University of Kentucky student Anne Gieske and Kennesaw State University student Steven Blesi, their schools said in statements.
Gieske was a freshman nursing student, University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto said in a letter to the community. Gieske was from northern Kentucky and studied abroad in South Korea for a semester, Capilouto said.
CBS Lexington affiliate WKYT-TV reported that Gieske was a member of her school’s Korean language and culture club.
Blesi studied international business at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and was one of 11 students studying in South Korea on a study abroad program, the school said.