- Nick Marsh
- BBC News, Seoul
Kim Baek-gyeom is still visibly shaken by what he saw Saturday night in Seoul’s popular Itaewon district.
He is a deputy inspector in the capital of South Korea and was on duty that tragic night.
“We received a report of a fight in the area, so I arrived at the scene between 10.10 and 10.15 p.m.,” he explains to the BBC at his police station in Itaewon, a few meters from where the tragedy happened. .
He says that he saw people lying on the ground and heard screams. “I tried to do my duty, to help people. Unfortunately, I couldn’t”he says.
But a video shared on social media showing his desperate efforts to chase people out of the alley has earned praise from South Koreans, even as it highlights the inadequate police presence on the ground that night.
The video shows a young and lonely figure in uniform, with deep concern on his face, trying to stop the huge tide of bodies moving away from the narrow alley on the hillside where more than 150 people will eventually lose their lives.
“People are dying!, he screams desperately. “Everyone move here, please cooperate!”
Inspector Kim wasn’t even supposed to be there. Although his police station is in the heart of Itaewon, he was not deployed on the streets that night.
Those streets would eventually be filled with more than 100,000 people, mostly young people, who came to enjoy the Halloween parties.
“I was at the police station, waiting to be sent for any crime that might happen in Itaewon that night,” he recalls. There was no question of crowd control, not tonight, not even in the days leading up to Halloween.
We received a report of a fight near the tree line, so I immediately went out to the scene, he says.
Then the inspector saw that there were many people in a dangerous crowd. People were crushed at the bottom of the steep alley that connects the main road with the bar-filled streets on the hill.
To try to prevent additional crushing at the bottom, he decided he needed to prevent people from going to the upper part of the alley.
“As can be seen the HonIpart, I started screaming and asking people to go somewhere else”cubes.
Most of the people around him obeyed him and, in fact, many began to help him lead the crowd. Soon, dozens of people were performing CPR on the victims, as crowd control efforts quickly turned into a rescue operation.
Kim says he did not see other officers at the scene of the tragedy, although he was later informed that others were involved in the rescue.
Working alone, without a megaphone or any basic plan of action, he faced the impossible task of trying to avoid the catastrophe unfolding before him.
The sheer number of people who lost their lives that night left him with a great deal of guilt.
“I feel like I didn’t do my best. I didn’t do my duty as a Korean police officer and I’m really sorry,” he says.
The mother of one of the victims contacted the inspector on Thursday to thank him for his performance that evening.
“I was very sorry that I couldn’t thank him,” he recalls.
“I was unable to do my job that night. I would like to meet the bereaved relatives and express my apologies and speak to them if possible.”
Those families now want answers as anger at South Korean authorities grows.
On Wednesday, special investigators raided eight police stations in Seoul to gather evidence as part of an investigation into how the human avalanche could have been created.
There is more and more evidence of government failures. First of all, because they didn’t plan well on Saturday night, and later because they didn’t respond effectively to the emergency calls warning of overcrowding, which started coming in hours before the disaster.
In the days leading up to the tragedy, Yongsan-gu District held two meetings to discuss how to handle Halloween celebrations. As stated on her page, among other things there was talk about covid, garbage collection and illegal parking.
There was no mention of crowd control, despite the county’s mayor admitting a day earlier that this would be the first Halloween in three years without social distancing measures.
The head of the South Korean police also admitted this on Tuesday his body’s emergency response was “inadequate” and that he feels a “great responsibility” for the death.
However, Inspector Kim’s efforts have won the admiration of the general public, although he wants the focus to remain on the families of the victims.
“A lot of people contacted me and asked if I was okay,” he says.
“But instead of worrying about me, think of the bereaved families who will suffer the most. Please pray for them.”
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