(4th LD) South Korea mourns the death of crush Itaewon

(ATTN: UPDATE with more info in paragraphs 18-19, 22)

By Park Boram

SEOUL, October 31 (Yonhap) -- White mourning flowers and condolence gifts have been laid, and shops bearing condolence messages shut down business in Seoul's Itaewon district on Monday, as South Korea mourned the country's deadliest crowd amid a search for souls. about what went wrong.

Funeral altars laden with white chrysanthemums were also opened across the country to allow people to burn incense and pay their respects to those who died in Saturday night's crash that left at least 154 people, mostly in their 20s, dead and 33 others seriously injured.

President Yoon Suk-yeol was one of the first to pay tribute to the victims.

Dressed in black, Yoon and first lady Kim Keon-hee visited the altar set up at Seoul Plaza in front of the City Hall, laid flowers and bowed their heads in silent prayer.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon also paid their respects at the altar later.

The tragedy struck late Saturday when large crowds of Halloween partygoers packed a narrow 3.2-meter-wide alley in Seoul's Itaewon entertainment district. Some of them started to fall, causing the others to fall like "dominos" and piled on top of each other.

It marked the deadliest crowd crushing in South Korean history and the worst disaster the country has seen since 2014, when the Sewol ferry sank in waters off the southern coast and killed 304 people, mostly high school students.

Two-thirds of the victims, or 103 people, were in their 20s, and the majority of those killed were 98-year-old women, largely because what experts say are their relatively smaller skeletons and less muscle to withstand the crushing pressure. .

People began laying wreaths, white funeral flowers and condolence gifts, such as candy and bottles of soju, near the crash site in Itaewon on Sunday, and many visited the site to mourn and pay their respects to the victims.

"I came out to pray for the victims and their families," a 29-year-old citizen, surnamed Yoon, told Yonhap News Agency after paying tribute in the neighborhood late Sunday. "I hope people can find hope in the midst of despair."

After a long prayer in front of the altar erected in the Jeju Island provincial government building, Kim So-hee, a 28-year-old Jeju government employee, said, "I am heartbroken as if one of my friends has died, because most of the victims were more or less. my age."

Many business owners in the Itaewon neighborhood, including restaurants, shoe shops, and cafe operators, mourned by posting messages of condolences for the victims. Many of them decided to stay closed until the last day of the national day of mourning, Saturday.

"We, the merchants in Itaewon, are very shocked and feel responsible for the tragedy," a bakery owner, surnamed Oh, told Yonhap News Agency, adding that many were looking for other ways to mourn.

The bakery owner decided to join the business closure until Saturday, and gave free bread and coffee to police and rescue workers on duty in the neighborhood.

The 26 foreign victims included five from Iran, four each from China and Russia, two from the United States, two from Japan, and one each from France, Australia, Norway, Austria, Vietnam, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Sri Lanka. said the official.

Among those killed were one middle school student and five high school students, all from Seoul, the education ministry said. Five other high school or high school students were injured, and two of them were hospitalized.

A total of 116 others suffered minor injuries.

In a disaster response meeting on Monday, the government decided to provide 20 million won (US$14,010) in compensation to each victim who died above up to 15 million won in financial assistance to cover funeral expenses.

Survivors will also be compensated between 5-10 million won, according to the seriousness of their injuries, said top interior ministry official Kim Sung-ho.

On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people visited the Itaewon area, known for its trendy nightlife and chic restaurants, for Halloween celebrations without social distancing rules, including rules for wearing masks outdoors, in three years.

The crash site is a downhill back alley where about six adults can barely pass at one time.

Police said a special investigation team of 475 people had interviewed 44 eyewitnesses and recovered 54 surveillance camera footage from the crash site to determine the cause of the deadly crash, and so far no criminal action had been detected.

Critics have raised the question of whether the disaster could have been prevented.

Some said the Seoul city government, the Yongsan County office where Itaewon is located and the police should have taken adequate accident precautions to anticipate the record Halloween crowd, while others said the disaster was beyond prediction.

Crowds of nearly 100,000 people are expected to flock to the Saturday nightlife district.

Many said there was some kind of warning signal beforehand, as eyewitness accounts said on social media that several people were pushed by the crowd and fell in the same alley the night before but were unharmed after others stopped moving.

Witnesses also said it was already difficult to walk around Itaewon on Friday because of the large crowd.

Despite the clear warning signal, however, the Seoul city government did not appear to have taken any special action to avoid any Halloween-related safety accidents beforehand.

The Yongsan Ward Office held an emergency meeting on Thursday under the supervision of the deputy chief to discuss Halloween-related safety measures for the Itaewon region, but the discussions reportedly focused on COVID-19 quarantine measures, facility inspections, and restaurant food safety.

The ward office said about 150 civil servants in 28 teams were deployed to Itaewon from Thursday to Saturday, but it appeared that the manpower was insufficient to handle tens of thousands of people.

Seoul police also said they deployed about 200 officers to Itaewon on Saturday, although their duties were mostly focused on cracking down on sex crimes, drugs and theft, not safety management.

Critics also noted there should have been a vehicle ban in parts of Itaewon's main road and that spaces for people to gather should be secured beforehand.

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