Police wrap up monthslong probe into Itaewon crush; 23 officials referred to prosecution

January 13, 2023

Police wrapped up a monthslong investigation Friday into the deadly crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood last year, with 23 government officials referred to the prosecution on fatal professional negligence and other charges.

The special police investigation team concluded the crowd crush was a “man-made” disaster caused by authorities’ failure to come up with disaster prevention measures and respond promptly to an emergency situation.

The crowd crush killed 159 people, many of them women in their 20s, on a narrow, sloped alley on Oct. 29 as a massive crowd packed the path. About 100,000 people were visiting the nightlife district for Halloween celebrations.

The 501-personnel investigation team went into operation on Nov. 1 and had been looking into the district office and the police, fire and other related agencies in Yongsan, which administers Itaewon, to get to the bottom of the deadly accident.

The investigation team concluded that no proper emergency rescue or disaster control action was taken by each agency in accordance with relevant guidelines for emergency situations, leading to the high death toll.

Among those referred to the prosecution with detention were Yongsan Ward office chief Park Hee-young and former Yongsan Police Station chief Lee Im-jae, both on charges of professional negligence resulting in death.

Four other police and Yongsan Ward officials were also referred to the prosecution with detention, including a former Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA) official charged with deleting internal reports warning of Halloween overcrowding and a possible safety accident.

SMPA chief Kim Kwang-ho, two other SMPA officers in charge of emergency monitoring, Yongsan Fire Station chief Choi Seong-beom, the chief of the Yongsan community health center and the chief of the Itaewon Subway Station were also among those referred to the prosecution without detention on fatal professional negligence or other charges connected to the bungled response.

The heads of Hamilton Hotel, adjoining the accident site, and a bar on the hotel’s ground floor were also referred to the prosecution for installing illegal structures on the narrow alley.

Following the transfer of the cases, prosecutors are expected to conduct further investigation for potential indictments to decide whether to have them stand trial.

The police investigation team, meanwhile, decided not to hold any officials from the interior ministry, the Seoul city government or the national police agency accountable for the deadly accident, concluding those bodies are not legally responsible for crowd control duties.

Former Yongsan Police Station chief Lee Im-jae (C) appears for questioning at the special police investigation team's office in western Seoul, in this file photo taken Nov. 24, 2022. (Yonhap)
Former Yongsan Police Station chief Lee Im-jae (C) appears for questioning at the special police investigation team’s office in western Seoul, in this file photo taken Nov. 24, 2022. (Yonhap)

Referring to a simulation analysis of the crowd crush conducted with the National Forensic Service and outside experts, the investigation team also concluded the accident took place as crowds packing the bottleneck alley began to fall over.

“After the first fall took place at around 10:15 p.m., it was followed by four more falls among people behind. Unaware of this situation, crowds at the top continued to push down the alley for 10 minutes, resulting in the crush,” spokesman Kim Dong-wook said.

As crowds piled into the alley, crowd density shot up to 10.74 people per square meter at 10:25 p.m. on the barely 4-meter-wide bottleneck path, leaving many “pushed back and forth by crowds with their feet above the ground,” Kim said.

The accident, in particular, first began at the narrowest point along the sloped alley where the width reaches less than 3.2 m, he said.

Most of the crowd crush victims were found to have died of crush asphyxia or brain swelling caused by a lack of oxygen, he said.