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Itaewon: What is a Crowd Crush and How to Avoid It


Before Saturday night, the narrow streets of Itaewon, a popular nightlife district of Seoul, South Korea, were known to attract revelers and tourists.

Today, Itaewon’s narrow lanes are associated with a tragic event that claimed many lives and saw more than 150 people die and more than 100 injured while trying to enjoy Halloween celebrations.

Itaewon is a popular Halloween shopping destination and is lined with bars, clubs and restaurants that have opened for the first mask-free celebration in two years.

Thousands of people entered the neighborhood and by 10 p.m. the narrow streets were packed.

Several videos posted on social media platforms from the scene during the crushing of the crowd show people tightly packed together with no room for manoeuvre.

Witnesses told The Associated Press the crowd quickly turned chaotic and deadly as people were trapped for 40 minutes. In some places, people rolled over and found themselves stacked like dominoes.

Rescuers were overwhelmed by the number of recovered bodies and were calling on the crowd to help administer CPR, witness Ken Fallas told the AP.

South Korean officials admitted wrongdoing and issued an apology on Tuesday. An initial police investigation found that police did not respond effectively to phone calls for help, the AP reported on Tuesday.

Experts who have studied public safety and the issue of crowd crushes for decades say a multitude of factors contribute to events going horribly wrong like Itaewon, and there are many things that could have been done about it. advance to prevent such a catastrophe.

CTVNews.ca spoke with several scholars whose research focuses on crowd crushes and surges about what happened in Itaewon, how crowds can be managed safely, and how to protect themselves.

WHAT IS A CROWD CRUSH AND WHAT HAPPENED AT ITAEWON?

A crowd crush can happen when there is immense overcrowding and the density increases to the point that getting out is almost impossible, said G Keith Still, visiting professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England.

“A high-density drop can have these catastrophic consequences,” Still said. Injuries in crowding incidents are not entirely unusual, sometimes they can become more extreme, such as in Itaewon, he said.

“Unfortunately for some people, the first time they experience [a crowd crush], it’s too late for them to do anything. It doesn’t have to do with the number of people, it has to do with exposure to high density,” he explained.

Always said that if asked to do a risk assessment of Itaewon, he would have immediately said “there are a finite number of people who can fit into this space”.

The problem with Itaewon’s popularity in this case is that the neighborhood is made up of narrow streets and alleys that connect, providing little space for what has become a large number of people, said Ali Asgary, a professor at York University and an expert in disaster, emergency management and business continuity.

“There was no event management there or a crowd management system. It all led to this unfortunate event,” he said.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE IN ADVANCE?

A risk assessment would involve looking at the space, seeing the routes people can take and understanding who is attending the event and their motivations, then implementing countermeasures to avoid a crowd crush, a said Still.

“The way I compare it is to a tachometer on a car. There’s a red line. If you rev ​​the engine above the red line, it’s going to explode. It’s the same as the density of the crowd – you have to keep the crowd below that density in order to keep it moving,” he said.

Gil Fried, a professor at the University of West Florida in the Department of Administration and Law, said the first thing that jumped out at him about Itaewon was the area’s appearance and the way the alleyways are surrounded by walls.

“Barricades or anything that’s constricting people and pinning them down, that’s going to be a concern,” he said.

Another problem, highlighted at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday by President Yoon Suk Yeol, is that South Korea lacks crowd management resources. Police told reporters that only 137 officers were in the area that night, when as many as 100,000 people arrived to celebrate Halloween.

Although this is more officers than in 2017 to 2019, when only 34 to 90 officers were assigned to the area, police acknowledged that the officers were primarily tasked with dealing with crime and drug abuse, not to control crowds.

Beyond the number of police assigned to the area, specially trained experts should also have been involved, experts say.

According to the National Fire Protection Association in the United States, one event requires one trained crowd manager for every 250 people, Fried said.

“Police are not necessarily trained to deal with a crowd,” he said. Police may know what to do when a crowd gets out of hand, but not what to do proactively to minimize the potential for concerns about crowd crushes, he said.

At least 400 trained mob personnel should have been in Itaewon, Fried said.

Other factors that impact strategy are the weather, the presence of water in the area and the possibility that the crowd is drinking or under the influence of drugs, he explained.

“When people are funneled into these narrow alleys, it’s a recipe for disaster, because you want as much space as possible,” he said.

The space should be monitored and staff should keep more people out until the situation is resolved, Still said.

“It’s done all the time in the Christmas markets…it’s very simple to regulate, if and only if you understand the risk. That’s the problem here, they didn’t see the problem before it happened,” he said.

Crowd movements can be controlled to ensure there is enough space for emergency services to reach people at all times, Asgary said.

“It could have helped a lot, although if I was there and even thinking of having so many people in that area, I wouldn’t even recommend it,” he said. “But if people want to use that space…the numbers should be reduced,” he said.

HOW CAN A CROWD CRUSH CAUSE DEATH?

The majority of deaths from a crowd crush are due to lack of oxygen, not injury, Asgary said.

“It’s not because your leg is broken, it’s because of the pressure damaging your internal organs that can’t function with blood flow or oxygen flow,” he said. .

Experiencing horizontal and vertical pressure, where people push sideways, front and back, as well as each other, makes it hard to breathe, he explained.

“He may not show signs of injury from the outside, but it’s the pressures from the internal organs that are causing this situation,” he said. “But if you get smashed into a wall, you’ll get injuries from the outside as well,” he said.

Crush injuries, where multiple people end up on top of each other, create a significant force that can injure a body, Fried said.

He said he has worked on cases where metal rails have been twisted due to a crowd crush, indicating that a large force has pushed a person against the railing. It would take over 1,000 pounds per square inch, he said.

“It’s like drowning. There’s nothing you can do, if there’s three or four people on top of you, there’s this feeling of desperation,” he said.

HOW CAN YOU SURVIVE A CROWD CRUSH?

While there may be a point where it’s impossible to escape a crowd crush, Fried recommends “situational awareness,” which is being aware of the surroundings at all times.

“Understand what’s going on and try to take action that will minimize the likelihood… knowing where your exits are, if there’s general admission, don’t go to the front,” he said.

“One of the things we always tell people is to always bring water. You might get stuck there, and there are a lot of cases of dehydration,” Fried said.

He recommended a person stuck in a crowd to see if they can stabilize themselves and move with the movement of the crowd, because in those situations what happens is that individuals become like “fluid”, a said Asgary.

“We will no longer be able to control ourselves, we follow with the others and we move with them. If we start pushing or pressing, it’s not going to help. We just need to relax and calm down.

He said those involved should do their best to conserve oxygen and protect body parts important for breathing, and focus on breathing rather than pushing.

WHAT ARE SOME MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT CROWD CRUSH?

With the crush of crowds, blame is sometimes placed on the crowd rather than the organizers and government departments that were supposed to provide a safe environment, Still said.

“It’s not for members of the public to consider the safety plan,” he said. “When you go to a nightclub or a nighttime economy, it’s a duty of care for people who manage to provide a safe environment,” Still said.

There’s no “jostling” in cases like these, no one is running, Still said.

“Nobody in that crowd went with the intention of reacting that way,” he said. “It wasn’t them who were going to create a problem or harm, it was reacting to the situation they were in.”

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