SEOUL: The whereabouts of two senior police officers at the time of the deadly Halloween crowd crush have emerged as a focal point of an investigation into the tragedy that killed more than 150 people in Seoul’s Itaewon district.
A special investigation team is currently looking into what went wrong and who was responsible for the police’s crisis response fiasco amid criticism that the accident could have been avoided or minimized had police responded in a timely manner.
The tragedy happened Saturday night when a massive crowd of Halloween partygoers packed a narrow 3.2-meter-wide alley in Seoul’s entertainment district of Itaewon. Some of them began to fall over, causing others to fall down like “dominoes” and pile up on top of one another, leaving at least 156, mostly people in their 20s, killed.
Criticism of police rose higher following revelations that police had received about a dozen emergency calls alerting them to a dangerous level of overcrowding in Itaewon in the few hours leading up to the crush but did little in response.
Further revelations showed a leaky reporting system along the chain of police command also left the national police chief aware of the deadly crush nearly two hours after it happened, and an hour and 13 minutes after President Yoon Suk-yeol was informed of the accident.
The two senior officers at the center of the investigation are Lee Im-jae, the chief of the Yongsan Police Station that polices Itaewon, and Ryu Mi-jin, who was in charge of situation monitoring at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency at the time of the deadly accident.
The National Police Agency decided to refer them to an investigation.
Ryu was accused of neglecting her duties to promptly recognize the emergency situation and report it to the Seoul police chief and to the situation room of the National Police Agency, while Lee is facing suspicions that he belatedly responded to the deadly accident or reported the situation to higher levels too late.
Both have been sidelined from duty and put on disciplinary “standby.”
Now, the point of the investigation is widely seen as focused on the whereabouts of the two senior officers around the time the deadly crush erupted and how their absence, if any, had dislocated the police reporting system that night.
According to facts gathered by Yonhap News Agency, both had remained out of contact at the time the accident started to unfold at 10:15 p.m.
Lee arrived at the accident site in Itaewon shortly after it erupted, but his whereabouts during the preceding hour has been brought into question. Officials said he should have gone to the site earlier for crowd control to prevent the disaster.
Since the morning through 9 p.m. on Saturday, the Yongsan Police Station chief had led operations in response to a series of civic rallies held in other parts of Yongsan Ward, but where he had been in the span of one hour before arriving at the accident site remained largely blank.
One key question about him rests on that he reported the emergency situation to Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency chief Kim Kwang-ho belatedly at 11:34 p.m., leaving the top police command in the dark for more than an hour.
At the time Kim learned of the situation, dozens of people had been in a state of cardiac arrest already.
Meanwhile, Ryu, who was supposed to be in charge of emergency monitoring at the situation room of the Seoul police agency, had been out of the office at the moment the deadly accident took place.
An emergency monitoring office in charge at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency is a “linchpin,” connecting police stations with the National Police Agency for emergency response in cases that need immediate police intervention.
Having belatedly recognized the crush in Itaewon, Ryu gave an alert to Seoul police chief Kim only after 11:39 p.m. and then to the situation room of the National Police Agency, but she had been absent in the critical moment of the Itaewon accident.
A separate police report released Thursday also showed a riot police squad affiliated with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency was on standby near Itaewon on the night of the accident but had not been mobilized for any public order maintenance efforts Saturday night.
Earlier this week, the special police investigation team raided the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, the Yongsan Police Station, and six other offices, and seized police work logs from the night of the accident as part of the investigation into the bungled police response.
The office of President Yoon Suk-yeol said Thursday “various other options” could be considered if the police’s internal investigation into the case fails to satisfy the public.
The main opposition Democratic Party has called for a parliamentary investigation into the case, while the ruling People Power Party has called for restoring the prosecution’s investigative powers through a revision of a law that limits them.