South Korean authorities say they had no guidelines for dealing with large crowds on Halloween

(CNN) — South Korean authorities said on Monday they had no guidelines for handling the large crowds that gathered for Halloween celebrations in Seoul, as families across the country and around the world mourned the 156 victims of Saturday night’s deadly human attack.

The stampede took place in the narrow, neon-lit alleyways of the popular nightlife district of Itaewon, where witnesses described being unable to move or breathe as thousands of people stood shoulder to shoulder on a street no more than 4 meters wide.

Families spent much of Sunday gathering at information centers where authorities gathered information about the dead and injured and contacted morgues and hospitals in a desperate attempt to find missing relatives.

Now that all the victims have been identified, panic has turned into national mourning as the country grapples with one of the worst disasters in its history, while parents of victims abroad worry about their children who died in a foreign land.

Seoul Halloween Avalanche

A woman pays her respects at a memorial altar on October 31 in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung Jun/Getty Images)

On Monday, October 31, official memorial altars were set up in downtown Seoul. Photos of the venue showed crowds of people attending the tribute. Many were crying and holding white flowers; others knelt and bowed deeply before the altar.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, his wife Kim Keon-hee and senior officials including the prime minister and mayor of Seoul joined the mourners.

Many shops and businesses are closed for the week-long period of national mourning. Parts of central Seoul were almost deserted, highly unusual in the usually bustling capital of about 10 million people.

People also expressed their condolences at an impromptu vigil in Itaewon, outside a subway station near the alley where the stampede happened. The entrance to the station is decorated with rows of flowers and offerings such as handwritten notes, bottles of Korean soju liquor and paper cups filled with drinks.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and his wife Kim Kun-hee hold flowers at a memorial altar in Seoul on October 31. (Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Among the mourners was a civic group of families from the Sewol ferry disaster, in which 304 people, mostly teenagers on a school trip, died when the ship capsized in 2014.

“As someone who has suffered the same pain, my heart is torn apart and I am speechless,” one of the group’s members told reporters at the memorial, saying the families were saddened to see “a big disaster like this. repeated.”

There are questions about the number of police officers in Seoul

Just down the street, the entrance to the alley was fenced off. Security personnel stood guard as forensic teams dressed in white hazmat suits searched the area, still littered with trash and debris.

Amidst the grief, questions are being raised about the government’s handling of the incident and the apparent lack of crowd control before the tragedy.

Several eyewitnesses and survivors said they saw little or no police in the area before the situation worsened.

Earlier on Sunday, the interior and security minister said only a “normal” level of security personnel had been deployed in Itaewon as crowds there did not appear unusually large, while a “substantial number” of police had been sent elsewhere in Seoul in response to expected protests.

Seoul Halloween

Mourners pay their respects to victims of the deadly Halloween surge in Seoul on October 31, 2022 (Credit: Rebecca Wright/CNN)

But in the face of backlash from Korean politicians and on social media, authorities appeared to reverse course on Monday, saying they had deployed about 137 people to Itaewon that night, compared with between 30 and 70 in previous years before the pandemic.

“For the Halloween festival this time, since many people were expected to gather in Itaewon, I understand they prepared by deploying more police force than previous years,” said Oh Seung-jin, director of violent crime investigation. crime. a department of the National Police Agency.

However, he admitted, “at the moment, there is no special manual for preparing such a situation where there is no organizer, and a mass gathering is expected”. Furthermore, the police were not deployed for crowd control, but for crime prevention and the prevention of “various illegal acts”.

Kim Seong-ho, director of the Department of Safety and Disaster Management at the Ministry of Home Affairs and Security, echoed these comments, saying they “have no guidelines or manual” for an “unprecedented situation.”

Who are the victims of the tragedy?

The victims were mostly young people who came to Itaewon on Saturday night, eager to celebrate South Korea’s first Halloween in years without Covid restrictions. Of the 155 dead, at least 99 were in their teens or 20s, authorities said Sunday.

At least 26 were from countries including the United States, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway, France, Russia, Austria, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Information about the victims began to trickle out on Monday, Oct. 31, when officials notified families and began making arrangements.

The dead included six students who attended schools in Seoul, one elementary school and five high school students, as well as three teachers, the Korean Ministry of Education said.

Among the dead were three members of the South Korean army, an official of the Korean Ministry of Defense said.

Steven Blesi, 20, a student from Marietta, Georgia. (Credit: Courtesy of the family of Steven Blesi)

Two American students have been identified: Steven Blesi from Georgia and Anne Gieske from Kentucky, both juniors.

Blesi’s father, Steve Blesi, said his son has “always been an adventurer.” He was an Eagle Scout, loved basketball and wanted to learn more languages, he said.

“Maybe half an hour before this tragic event happened, I sent him a message on WhatsApp… ‘I know you are far from home. Stay safe. I love you’. And I never got an answer,” Steve said. “He had an incredibly bright future that is now gone.”

Dan Gieske, Anne’s father, said in a statement late Sunday that the family was “completely devastated and heartbroken,” calling Anne “a shining light that we all loved.”

Anne was a nursing student studying in Seoul this semester, the University of Kentucky president said.

Anne Gieske, a University of Kentucky student who died in a stampede in Seoul. (Credit: Courtesy of Beechwood Schools)

The father of Mei Tomikawa, the 26-year-old Japanese exchange student who died in the stampede, told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK that he was “prepared for the worst” when he failed to reach her.

She studied Korean before going to school in Seoul, the father said when he spoke to the broadcaster before leaving Japan for South Korea on Monday.

“I tried to call her to warn her to be careful, but she didn’t answer the phone,” he said, according to NHK. “She was a great daughter… I want to see my daughter as soon as possible.”

Grace Rached, Australian woman killed in crowd attack in Seoul, South Korea. (Credit: Australia DFAT)

The family of Grace Rached, the Australian victim, also released a statement on Monday describing her as “a talented film producer who was passionate about making a difference”.

“We miss our beautiful angel Grace who lit up the room with her infectious smile. Grace always made others feel important, and her kindness made an impression on everyone she met. Grace always cared about others and was loved by all,” the family wrote.

The authorities are now working with foreign embassies and families abroad, offering support in organizing funerals. As the week progresses, more names and faces of those who perished are likely to emerge as the nation searches for answers about how such a disaster, in an area known for its Halloween overcrowding, with celebrations planned for weeks, could have been staged.

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