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Police crisis management, command systems said to be in disarray at time of crowd crush

All News 11:37 November 03, 2022

SEOUL, Nov. 3 (Yonhap) -- Facts and circumstances revealed one after another after last Saturday's tragic crowd crush in Seoul seem to indicate that police's crisis management and command systems were in a mess at the time of the unfolding disaster.

Police's emergency response system, including the handling of urgent calls for help and the command reporting system, did not appear to function properly hours prior to the accident that has claimed at least 156 lives, according to the circumstances disclosed so far.

About a dozen emergency calls made to the police's 112 emergency hotline to warn of the dangerous size of the Halloween crowd in Itaewon and even people on the verge of suffocation were virtually disregarded.

Police and administrative authorities were supposed to make decisions quickly to cope with the crisis, but their command reporting system seemed to work slowly and inefficiently.

Yoon Hee-keun, head of the National Police Agency, bows in apology during a press conference at the agency's headquarters in Seoul on Nov. 1, 2022, over the crowd crush in Itaewon. (Yonhap)

Yoon Hee-keun, head of the National Police Agency, bows in apology during a press conference at the agency's headquarters in Seoul on Nov. 1, 2022, over the crowd crush in Itaewon. (Yonhap)

According to the interior ministry and police, the police's 112 emergency call center received its first call for help at 6:34 p.m. Saturday from a person who said people are likely to be crushed to death due to a crowd surge.

In South Korea, people can call the police for help by dialing 112 or the fire department at 119 in emergencies.

Thereafter, police received 10 more emergency calls from Itaewon until 10:15 p.m., and eight of them were classified as urgent ones that require immediate police mobilization.

But police officers were actually dispatched to the scene in response to only four of the 11 emergency calls, and they did not actively intervene to control the crowd.

The 11th caller also reported an emergency, saying, "I think I'll be crushed to death," but police finished the call after classifying it as a situation where assistance is not needed.

The crowd crush appeared to begin about four minutes after the 11th call.

Police asked the Seoul Emergency Operations Center, which handles 119 emergency calls, to respond to two of the 11 calls at 8:37 p.m. and 9:01 p.m., but the center explained it did not send rescue workers there after both of the callers said an ambulance was not needed.

The 119 hotline center said it received its first call for help from Itaewon at 10:15 p.m., which said about 10 people were crushed. The 119 center then stepped up its crisis response level by three notches at 10:43 p.m., 11:13 p.m. and 11:50 p.m., respectively.

While the crowd crush was under way, however, reports from the scene to the police headquarters were incomprehensibly delayed, according to police data.

The chief of Yongsan Police Station, which oversees the Itaewon district, arrived at the disaster scene at 10:17 p.m., but the chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency received his first report on the crisis at 11:34 p.m. All told, the Seoul police chief became aware of the crowd crush one hour and 21 minutes after it occurred.

Moreover, the Itaewon situation was reported to Yoon Hee-keun, chief of the National Police Agency (NPA), 48 minutes later at 12:14 a.m. Sunday. At that time, some media agencies were already reporting several dozens of people suffered cardiac arrest in Itaewon.

Minister of Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min, who oversees the police, first learned of the accident at 11:20 p.m. Saturday through a text message from his own ministry, rather than a direct report from the police.

President Yoon Suk-yeol received his first report on the accident at 11:01 p.m. via the Korea Fire Service and the presidential office's situation room.

Taken together, the circumstances indicate the interior minister recognized the occurrence of the disaster 19 minutes later than his superior, President Yoon. The NPA chief also learned of the accident 54 minutes later than his superior, Minister Lee.

The inefficient command reporting system eventually led to the delayed police response to the crisis. Police officers began to control traffic in Itaewon beginning at 11 p.m. to secure access roads for ambulances, and the Seoul police chief began his field command at 12:25 a.m. Sunday.

NPA chief Yoon began to preside over an emergency meeting of police commanders at 2:30 a.m., when the death toll was already exceeding 100 in Itaewon.


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