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Itaewon crush: Anxious warnings turn into screams of terror in emergency calls

  • Published
    23 hours ago

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Image source, Nuhyil Ahammed

The first emergency call about trouble at Itaewon came in the early evening of 29 October.

“It’s so chilling right now,” the woman said, as she described a chaotic scene on the narrow streets of the Seoul nightlife district.

In total, there were 11 calls made to South Korea’s 112 emergency police hotline begging them to control the crowds gathering for Halloween before the fatal crush happened.

As calls for accountability have mounted, South Korean police have launched an investigation. Officers on Wednesday raided the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, as well as police stations, fire stations and emergency call sites, to look into whether officers who took the calls fulfilled their duty and took proper measures.

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Police have also taken the unusual step of releasing transcripts of the calls.

From anxious warnings to screams of terror, the transcripts have painted a horrifying picture of how the situation escalated. At least 156 people were killed in the crush – another 172 were injured, 33 seriously.

The crowd builds up

In the first emergency call at 18:34 local time – hours before the crush happened – an Itaewon shopkeeper named Ms Park described people getting off at the Itaewon subway station, coming up the narrow alley by Hamilton Hotel and Shopping Mall, and mixing with people leaving the area as well as others lining up to enter clubs.

“No one is controlling it right now. The police has to stand and control this. You should let people out first and then let people come in. People keep pouring in while they can’t get out,” she said.

In an interview with local radio station CBS on Wednesday, Ms Park said she made the call after she went for a walk with her daughter and husband and got separated from them by the huge crowds. They eventually regrouped and quickly rushed home.

Narrow alleyway in Itaewon

Image source, BBC/ Jiro Akiba

She described her terror at being caught up in crowds much bigger than what she was used to seeing in the area on a weekend, and her regret that the incident happened despite her early warning.

“On my way home in the taxi, I thought the situation would have been different if I waited there until the police came, by forming a [human barrier] with others and letting young people know that the situation was dangerous. I regret it,” she said.

“The police might have taken stronger control by blocking the roads or controlling the subway, if they knew that more people would come. But there was no police [on the ground] who could make such a decision, or take action.”

Ms Park said that after her call she did not receive the customary text confirmation from the police informing her of their immediate actions – unusual for South Korean police, which prides itself on speedy and attentive follow-ups.

According to police records obtained by the Yonhap news agency, they mobilised officers for that call, but it is not known how many were sent down and what they did.

Falling and stumbling

The next few calls started coming in about two hours later, from 20:09 onwards.

Graphic showing where the 11 calls made to emergency services between 18:34 and 22:11 local time were made in relation to the scene of the fatal crush and the fact that calls 1,2, 5 and 6 resulted in police being mobilized

By then, it was clear the situation had deteriorated. The callers described seeing people stumbling after they were pushed, and getting injured.

“People are falling and things are getting out of control because the road here is blocked at the three-way intersection,” said the third caller.

By the end of the hour, at 20:53, the fourth caller described a harrowing situation near the Bronze nightclub.

“I feel like I am going to get crushed… many people are being crushed… it is chaos,” the caller said over a crackling phone line. They repeatedly begged the officer to “please help us”.

The officer assured the caller that they would send policemen to the scene. But police records showed they did not.

Bronze

Image source, BBC/Jiro Akiba

In fact, out of the 11 phone calls made to police, they only mobilised officers for four of them.

They did not dispatch anyone for any calls made from 21:07 onwards – the hour leading up to the crush.

Authorities said they had 137 officers on the ground at Itaewon that night. But they were clearly outmatched by the thousands that flocked to the area.

In one viral clip on social media, a lone police officer was seen in a massive crowd desperately shouting and trying to direct people away.

The final hour

On Saturday night, the calls kept streaming in steadily, getting briefer – and more urgent.

“I think there is going to be a real accident soon. Everything is insane,” said the sixth caller.

The eighth phone call at 21:10 was made in front of the Manam-e Kwangjang restaurant about 100 metres from Hamilton Hotel, illustrating how far the crowds extended to.

Second Map graphic

There was a lull of about 40 minutes. Then the final calls came in thick and fast, mostly from ground zero – the alley right by Hamilton.

The tenth caller appeared to be babbling in a panic.

“Yes, however, here, oh my, to come down the alley, I’m afraid, people are pushing and I think I am going to get crushed, please take control, yes,” they said.

In the last call at 22:11 – one of the briefest calls made – the caller dispensed with ceremony. Immediately after the police picked up, the person said urgently: “It feels like people can get crushed here.”

The officer asked repeatedly where they were exactly, but was unable to get a clear answer. Then, this exchange occurred:

Officer: I am going to trace your location. Yes. Are you near Yongsan station, Itaewon station?

Caller: Ahhh (screaming), ahhh (screaming). The road behind Itaewon.

Officer: Yes. The police will be there.

The call ended abruptly. Four minutes later, the deadly crush began.

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