SEOUL — On Halloween weekend last year, nearly 160 people were crushed to death in a narrow alleyway in South Korea’s capital after the country’s first post-pandemic holiday celebrations descended into deadly chaos.
One year on, despite an investigation and ongoing prosecutions of local officials, families of the victims — who were overwhelmingly young women in their 20s and 30s — say they are still searching for answers.
AFP takes a look at what we know:
Survivors describe being trapped in an impossibly dense crowd of people — swept off their feet and suffocated by the pressure of bodies around them — after tens of thousands of people poured into Seoul’s Itaewon neighbourhood on October 29, 2022 for Halloween celebrations.
There was only a light police presence and no advance crowd management plans as the event did not have an official organiser, allowing it to dodge the legally required preparations for mass gatherings.
In a narrow, sloping alleyway between streets of bars and clubs, 158 people — including 28 foreigners — were crushed to death. The official toll of 159 includes a teenage survivor who killed himself days after the disaster.
This year’s Halloween is expected to be very subdued, with the public discouraged from celebrating.
Bars and nightclubs in Itaewon — the go-to place for the US holiday — are not promoting Halloween-themed events.
District officials initially banned Halloween celebrations at Hongdae, another popular drink-and-party neighbourhood, but quickly scrapped it after criticism that they should prepare for crowd control rather than banning the public from going out.
The police have ramped up preparations for huge crowds, and this week carried out a drill using an AI-backed network of nearly 1,000 surveillance cameras designed to detect and flag dangerous crowding.
They have also cracked down on those dressing up as police officers for Halloween, warning that they can face up to six months in jail or up to 3 million won (S$3030) in fines.
“Please do not wear costumes similar to police uniforms on Halloween to avoid confusion,” a National Police Agency official said.
WHAT DO VICTIMS SAY?
A year on, victims’ families and survivors of the disaster are still demanding answers for what exactly happened on the night and say they continue to experience “frustration, pain and anger”.
Mr Yu Hyoung-woo, who lost his daughter to the Itaewon crush, said none of the victims’ families have received a formal briefing from the government.
“The South Korean government has yet to provide an explanation or take the necessary actions,” he added.
A large portion of South Korean society still blamed the victims for going to Itaewon in the first place, said Ms Nari Kim, whose brother died that night.
“Let me make it very clear again, family’s loved ones died walking on the streets of Itaewon,” Ms Kim said.
“It was not an accident and it could have been prevented,” she added.
“The government did not take it seriously, nor are they taking any responsibility.”
The police probe found massive failures in planning, and a botched and delayed response to the unfolding catastrophe.
But it stopped short of blaming any top government officials, and no senior figures were fired or resigned over the disaster, drawing strong protests from victims’ families.
Mid-level police officials and officials in the Yongsan district — of which Itaewon is part — were arrested in the months after the crush on charges of neglect of duty.
But legal proceedings have dragged on, even as all the officials have been released on bail. No one has been convicted.
Interior Minister Lee Sang-min was impeached by the opposition-controlled parliament over the disaster, but quickly reinstated by the Constitutional Court.
Yongsan district office chief Park Hee-young has claimed it was “not required” she prepare for the Halloween crowds, broadcaster MBC reported, blaming police crowd control failures instead.
WHAT’S ITAEWON LIKE NOW?
This year, not a single Halloween-themed decoration can be spotted in Itaewon.
Instead, a red banner hangs on a street near the crush site reading: “Safety Itaewon. This is a campaign we make together”.
One bar has already pulled out Christmas decorations, hanging two wreaths on its exterior walls and a string of stars over its window, where a snowman dressed up as Santa is seated surrounded by red and gold gift boxes.
The site of the crush, which has been officially designated the “October 29 Memorial Alley”, is marked by a purple notice board filled with hundreds of messages for the victims from citizens and tourists.
“One year. Time flies. I’m sorry nothing has been revealed yet. What we can do is to never forget you,” read one of the notes.
Victims’ families have said they will hold a commemoration in Itaewon on Sunday, but there is no event planned by the government. AFP