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Desperate calls for help came hours before the Seoul crowd surge turned deadly

People pray for victims of the deadly Halloween accident at a makeshift memorial in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday.
Ahn Young-joon
People pray for victims of the deadly Halloween accident at a makeshift memorial in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday.

Updated November 2, 2022 at 8:34 AM ET

SEOUL, South Korea — Three days after a deadly crowd crush in Seoul, South Korean authorities apologized to the victims and the public amid mounting scrutiny over their judgment and response.

Over 150 people, mostly young adults, died Saturday night in a narrow alleyway in the capital's Itaewon district, where more than 100,000 people flocked in for Halloween parties. The police had anticipated a large gathering but did not enforce crowd control measures.

But desperate calls for crowd control and police intervention came from the packed streets of Itaewon hours before the first call reporting the accident to the police.

"It looks like people will be squashed to death," said a person who called at 6:34 p.m. local time from the same alley. "There are too many people, and I barely got out. I think we need crowd control," the caller said.

According to transcripts released by police on Tuesday, similar calls warning them about a possible accident and asking for help followed. "There are so many people, and we are almost getting crushed to death," said a caller at 8:53 p.m.

"We are on the brink of having a major accident here," said a caller at 9 p.m..

"Please do something about this street. I really think people are going to die," said a caller at 9:02 p.m.

"Can you come as quickly as possible?" said a caller at 9:51 p.m. "It looks like a very dangerous situation here right now."

A total of 11 emergency calls came in from near the alleyway, but police dispatched officers on just four occasions. Soon after, starting at 10:15 p.m., calls reporting the fatal crush poured in.

At a press conference Tuesday, Commissioner General Yoon Hee Keun of the National Police Agency admitted "inadequate response to the multiple emergency calls warning of the severe situation" and pledged to launch an independent investigation body to examine officers of all levels.

On Wednesday, the special investigation team raided the police agencies of Seoul and the Yongsan ward, where the Itaewon district is located, in addition to the city's subway operator and fire department.

Interior Minister Lee Sang-min also apologized. "As the head of the ministry responsible for people's safety, I offer my sincere apology to the nation," he said at the national parliament Tuesday. "The state bears infinite responsibility for people's safety, yet this accident occurred."

Lee is the highest-ranking government official yet to offer an explicit apology over the disaster.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon also made a tearful apology on Tuesday for failing to fulfill his duty to protect citizens' lives and safety and for offering the apology too late.

The apologies follow growing public and media criticism that authorities have avoided taking responsibility for the tragedy, saying repeatedly that the police do not conduct crowd management for a spontaneous gathering without a clear organizer, like the Halloween crowd.

They also come amid predictions that the tragedy can further weaken the public's support for President Yoon Suk Yeol, whose job approval rating fell below 30% for most of the past three months.

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