South Korea Halloween stampede: Why do crowd crushes happen and how can they be prevented?

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The South Korean government is facing serious scrutiny after a deadly crowd surge left 156 people dead and over 150 others injured — marking the country’s worst disaster in years.

Thousands of excited young people converged in Itaewon, the capital’s vibrant nightlife district, on Saturday night to celebrate the first Halloween festivities since COVID restrictions had been lifted. However, excitement soon turned to terror when a crush developed in a narrow alley.

Onlookers, police and paramedics are seen in a city street.
Onlookers, police and paramedics respond to the crowd crush in the popular nightlife district of Itaewon in Seoul, South Korea. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)

Local officials first heard of reports of people "buried" in the crowd. Footage from moments before the crowd crush shows people unable to move in the tightly packed street, and a short time later, emergency responders giving CPR on those lying on the street. Choi Seong-beom, a fire official, confirmed that many of the victims were women in their 20s. Of the 19 foreign nationals who died on Sunday, two were American.

South Korea’s police chief admitted that officers did not effectively handle the emergency calls about the accident and said he felt a “heavy responsibility” for failing to prevent it. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol called for new safety measures to prevent disasters like this from happening in the future.

Why do crowd disasters happen?

Disasters such as crowd crushes can occur when too many people populate a narrow area. Speaking to Yahoo News, Ali Asgary, a professor of disaster and emergency management at Canada’s York University, said that they can occur for a number of different reasons, including when there is no crowd management in place and when there is a perceived threat, like a fire.

Emergency services workers pull a stretcher in a city street.
Emergency services personnel transport a victim of the crowd crush in Seoul. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

"'Group think,' is a key factor in causing crowd surges," Dr. Rami Hashish, a body performance and injury expert, explained. "This phenomenon happens when an individual, or a few individuals, performs an action, and the behavior is largely adapted by the crowd. Often the actions are somewhat irrational, such as surging forward or throwing miscellaneous items."

What injuries happen during a crush?

As a result of too many people being in a tight space, three factors can cause an acceleration of injuries and in some cases, death, Hashish said.

“As a result of overcrowding, heat levels rise, which can lead to increased fatigue and exhaustion,” he said. “People begin to panic, which elevates their heart rates and affects their breathing patterns. An overcrowded and collapsing crowd also places pressure on your chest, further affecting your ability to breathe, sometimes causing sporadic breathing, or in the worst cases — causing one to stop breathing.”

Two women wearing costumes look distraught.
People react after the crowd crush incident in Seoul. (Albert Retief/AFP via Getty Images)

According to a report conducted by the World Health Organization about key considerations for the public health of mass gatherings, there are two types of fatal consequences of crowding: “trampling and crushing.”

The report warns that “planners must have a thorough understanding of crowd behavior and the relevant safety systems. The combination of high crowd density and difficult access points is a major risk factor for a catastrophic stampede or trampling disaster.”

How can people protect themselves if they find themselves in this situation?

The best advice to avoid finding yourself in this type of situation is to not follow the crowd,” Hashish said. “It is also important to be aware of your surroundings and have a plan, so I also advise individuals to become familiar with the area they are in and try to identify an exit route upon arrival, should the crowd, or event, become dangerous.”

“Lastly, try to remain calm and control your breathing to save energy and prevent fatigue,” he added.

What is the worst crowd crush in history?

Unfortunately, accidents like these have become more common in recent years. The most infamous was in 1990 when around 1,400 Muslim pilgrims died in a stampede in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The crush occurred when some people stopped in the middle of an air-conditioned tunnel and others outside in the 112-degree heat began to push in to get relief, the New York Times reported at the time. Since then, there have been five more accidents that have occurred during the yearly hajj, or Islamic pilgrimage, in Saudi Arabia.

Incidents around the world and in the U.S.

Other infamous crushes have taken place in the U.K. and Indonesia.

In 1989, 96 people died and at least 200 were injured after soccer fans flooded the standing section of a Sheffield, England, stadium that was nearly at full capacity. The tragedy became known as the Hillsborough disaster. Reports at the time claimed that stadium officials allowed fans to stream in without checking whether they had tickets.

Aerial view of the burned remains of the Station nightclub.
The scene of the Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I. (David L Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

However, there were attempts to blame the fans and defend the police in charge of the safety at the match. The families of the victims spent decades seeking justice for their loved ones. In 2016, an inquiry overturned the original ruling from a coroner that it was an accident. Six people, including police supervisor David Duckenfield, who was in charge of the safety of the event, were eventually handed criminal charges.

Earlier this month in Indonesia,125 people were killed, including a 5-year-old child, and 323 were injured when police threw tear gas into the crowd at a soccer stadium in a bid to stop people from invading the pitch. The tear gas triggered a stampede, Nico Afinta, the East Java police chief, said.

There have been several cases of stampedes and crushes across the U.S. In 2003, 100 died and 230 others were injured after a fire began in the Station nightclub in Rhode Island. It started when a band’s tour manager set off four fireworks, causing people in the club to run toward the exit and resulting in a crush.

A buddhist monk sits in front of a makeshift memorial on a sidewalk.
A buddhist monk pays tribute to the victims of the Halloween celebration disaster in Seoul, South Korea. (Chris Jung/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

One year ago, 10 people died and 300 others sustained injuries after a crowd surged at rapper Travis Scott’s Astroworld music festival in Houston, Texas. A month later, a coroner's report stated that those who were killed died from compression asphyxia. At least two families of victims have settled their cases against Scott, Live Nation and other companies involved in the event.

Will they become more common in the future?

As the world’s population continues to rise and urbanization grows, Asgary said that these events will become a more common occurrence. “Crowds are an urban issue for the most part and many of our urban spaces and mass gathering events can be subject to crowd disasters,” he said. “The larger events we have, the more compact our spaces are, the less resources we have and so we must manage the crowd or else these incidents may occur.”

How can they be avoided?

“Like many other disasters, crowd disasters are for the most part human-made and can be avoided with planning, management, awareness, compliance, training, and education,” Asgary said. “Avoiding crowd incidents and disasters should be a shared responsibility of government agencies at all levels, businesses, and individuals.”