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‘It was already late’: Safety minister gives excuse for delayed response to Itaewon disaster

By Kim Arin

Published : Dec. 27, 2022 - 18:39

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The mother of late Lee Ji-han, who died in the crowd disaster in Itaewon in October, holds the hands of Minister Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min at the National Assembly in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap) The mother of late Lee Ji-han, who died in the crowd disaster in Itaewon in October, holds the hands of Minister Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min at the National Assembly in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Minister of Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min said “the golden hour had already past” in explanation of his tardy arrival at the scene of the fatal crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon on Oct. 29.

His remarks came during Tuesday’s parliamentary questioning of Cabinet ministers, police chiefs and other heads of institutions as part of the National Assembly probe into the Halloween disaster that killed 158 people.

“It was already late,” the safety minister replied to Rep. Youn Kun-young’s question as to why he did not leave home until an hour and 25 minutes after being briefed about the situation for the first time. The minister arrived at the scene of the disaster in Itaewon at about 12:45 a.m.

Lee, who was at his home in Apgujeong less than 5 kilometers from Itaewon at the time, said he waited for his driver who was leaving from Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province, to pick him up.

He said that by that point, “the golden hour” -- meaning the crucial time for saving people in a medical emergency -- “had already past.”

“But I wasn’t doing nothing while I was at home. I was doing what I could to get ahold of what was going on, making phone calls,” he said.

Lawmakers requested that Lee submit his call history to prove he was working during those hours.

The families of the victims who died in the Itaewon disaster wait outside the conference room as the parliamentary questioning proceeds on Tuesday. (Yonhap) The families of the victims who died in the Itaewon disaster wait outside the conference room as the parliamentary questioning proceeds on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

The safety minister also said he had not seen body camera footage from the day that showed victims struggling in the crowded alley, still alive, at around midnight.

“Minister, the footage shows all these young people and they were still alive at 11:50 p.m. You should have seen it by now,” said Rep. Kim Kyo-heung, a member of the Democratic Party of Korea’s committee for parliamentary probe.

Bereaved parents of the Itaewon disaster victims protested the minister’s remarks.

“The probe is pointless. It’s becoming so hard to watch,” said the father of the late Lee Ji-han, who died in the crush aged 24. “People in politics, they can be so cruel.”

He and other parents, who were waiting outside the conference room where questioning was taking place, demanded to speak with the lawmakers and safety minister.

“This is not about you,” one parent told Rep. Woo Sang-ho, who was chairing the session, as the lawmaker tried to stop her from speaking. “This is about my child who can’t come back. What you are doing here is not a probe.”

During Tuesday’s session, Minister of Health and Welfare Cho Kyu-hong was also grilled about a Democratic Party of Korea lawmaker, Rep. Shin Hyun-young, asking an ambulance to drop by her home in the early hours of Oct. 30.

Shin is accused of having the ambulance, which was headed to Itaewon, detour to pick her and her husband up, delaying its arrival at the scene as a result.

Rep. Jang Hye-young of the minor Justice Party said police failed to work with the fire department, despite repeated requests for a joint response.

Jang referred to transcripts of internal communications that showed the fire department requesting police help in getting ambulances into the scene until past midnight. It is believed that the crowding had begun to turn into a crush at around 10 p.m.

“Police weren’t there as the fire department was waiting for police involvement,” she pointed out.

National Police Agency Commissioner General Youn Hee-keun said in response that he “sees (Jang’s) point.” “I believe this is one of the things that is being investigated,” he said.

The families also criticized Prime Minister Han Duck-soo not showing up Tuesday, saying he was “trying to diminish the probe.”

Han’s office said he had come into close contact with an aide who was infected with COVID-19, and despite testing negative Monday he had decided to cancel his in-person schedule “out of caution.” The prime minister did not attend the Cabinet meeting, also held Tuesday, for the same reason.