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Police accelerate probe into Itaewon disaster

Police launch internal investigation to determine mishandling of police reports

Yoon Hee-keun, the National Police Agency Commissioner General, speaks at the press conference, Tuesday, regarding the crowd surge in Itaewon that took place on Saturday. (Yonhap)
Yoon Hee-keun, the National Police Agency Commissioner General, speaks at the press conference, Tuesday, regarding the crowd surge in Itaewon that took place on Saturday. (Yonhap)

Police are looking into all possibilities and allegations raised surrounding the Itaewon disaster, the National Police Agency chief said Tuesday, while admitting to mishandling police reports filed before the incident.

At a press conference held Tuesday, National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun said that there were several 112 reports before the crowd surge happened.

“The action of the police was insufficient. To clarify the circumstance and responsibilities, intense internal inspection will be conducted, without exceptions,” said Yoon. He explained that the police will investigate whether the reports received before the accident were handled properly and whether the overall on-site response was appropriate.

Yoon also said a separate investigative team under the National Police Agency will conduct the inspection. The inspection of the Yongsan Police Department, which has jurisdiction over the Itaewon area, began around 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

Regarding criticism that there was an insufficient number of officers at the scene, Yoon claimed the Yongsan Police Department had deployed a relatively large number of personnel to the site compared to years before the COVID-19 pandemic because they did predict a large crowd would gather following the relaxing of social distancing rules.

Yoon did not directly respond to a question about whether he is going to resign from the post, instead saying, “It is time to focus on getting a clear understanding of the incident and coming up with measures to prevent similar cases in future.”

“To satisfy the public and accomplish our task, we promise thorough inspection with determination to even cut our own flesh,” added Yoon.

Meanwhile, the 475 officers who work on investigations under the Seoul Metropolitan Police, including a dedicated investigation team, a victim protection team, and a scientific investigation support team, are accelerating the probe.

As of Monday, police have questioned 44 witnesses, and secured 52 recordings of CCTV footage from 42 locations near the site of the incident. The investigators are also analyzing social media posts.

The police are also looking into rumors that some people deliberately caused the accident. Some witnesses claimed that they saw five to six men triggering the accident by pushing the crowd down the alley, while others claimed a person wearing a rabbit headband incited the crowd to push. Some condemned nearby clubs and bars saying that they closed their doors, causing more damage by not providing exits for the crowd.

The police say that rumors that the crowd had gathered to see a celebrity had not been confirmed.

According to police, autopsies aren't considered necessary as the incident occurred in a public place and there are numerous videos and CCTV recordings of the scene, but autopsies can be conducted if the bereaved family wishes. So far one autopsy has been carried out.

Although the police were initially focused on cracking down on drug use over the weekend as drug related crimes have surged in recent months, no drug-related reports were received.

Authorities also said they will take action against those found to be defaming victims or releasing personal information without permission.

"An investigation is ongoing into six online posts for defamation and other charges. In case of malicious false news, comments and personal information distribution, we will actively consider launching an investigation even before receiving an accusation," said Nam.

The police will also investigate if the Hamilton Hotel, located next to the alley, was violating any construction laws.

The upper part of the alley where the accident took place is more than five meters wide, but the lower part narrows to 3.2 meters. Under the Building Act, roads must be more than four meters wide for pedestrian safety. The current map shows the road next to Hamilton Hotel to be four meters wide, but an illegal construction site - a narrow area about 70 centimeters wide surrounded by a metal panel fence - narrowed the alley.

Hamilton Hotel has been using the path made by the fenced off area as a passageway to the shopping mall, and although it has apparently crossed the building line, it was not subject to violation because it was in the form of a roofless wall.

It also turned out that illegal temporary booths set up for Halloween festivities and an additional terrace attached to the hotel made the roads in the neighborhood even narrower than usual.



By Lee Jung-youn (jy@heraldcorp.com)
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