Sunday, October 30, 2022

Halloween Party Crowd crush in Itaewon: I'm OK, but ffffffuuuuuuu.... (updated)

First of all: I'm okay. My family is okay. One nice thing about being a dad is that my Halloween party plans tend to be in the afternoon, not at night.

A few thoughts on it:

First... if I were going to go to a Halloween party, it would have been either Itaewon, where this whole thing happened, or Hongdae, where the youngs like to hang out.

Second... if you asked me to drop a pin last Thursday, the location where it happened is one of the two places where where I would have thought it would happen: It's right next to the subway station, it's also a little T-shaped intersection between the back streets where there are a lot of clubs and restaurants, and the main strip. What that means is: in that little area, a bunch of people are trying to get OUT of the back streets, a bunch of people are always trying to get IN, a bunch of people on the main strip are trying to head AWAY from the subway station to get down to where there are more party events, and a bunch of other people on the main strip are trying to head TOWARD the subway station, to head to the other end of Itaewon, or get to the subway station. 

Normally that just means dodging past a bunch of people going in every direction, but if the crowd is big enough for it to become a bottleneck... this happens.

This is particularly haunting to me, because all last week I was telling my students that it's fun to go to a Halloween party at least once while you're a university student. I hope they all went to Hongdae (the other club area popular with international folks and students).

A little while ago, I think when the thing in Indonesia happened, my son asked me about crowd crushes, and we learned a bit about them through some Youtube videos. So here: learn a little about how they happen, and a bit about what to do:

Now I am hearing people invoke the Sewol Ferry disaster here—the Sewol Ferry sinking was a horrible confluence of risk factors that led to 304 deaths, worst of all, many who were high school students. 

This time we will again see shocking numbers of casualties in their teens and twenties—these were partygoers! [update: this is starting, and god it's sad]

But I don’t think they are quite as comparable as all that, other than the utter, gut-punch grief that will wash over the country as we start seeing photos and learning about the people we lost last night. 

The Sewol became a political disaster because it was a boat run by a company that had been cutting corners, exploiting loopholes, and taking advantage of some sloppy or careless safety inspectors, to pile up risk factors until they all went wrong at once. The failure of safety inspectors and regulations directly implicated the government who’d loosened regulations and the entire chain of command who systematically turned a blind eye as conditions that should have been enough to ground the ship until it passed safety protocols... didn't. The slow, confused, chaotic response by the coast guard and reporters who utterly botched the initial reporting meant that some lives were lost that didn't need to be. 

But the things that went wrong this time? I don’t think you can put them at any regulator or safety inspectors feet. The response was pretty quick, though a crowd crush happens so fast that unless crowd control is already on scene, it won't matter much. [UPDATE: I am changing my mind on this. Word is that people were calling emergency services hours before the crush turned deadly, saying "Hey the crowds are out of control in Itaewon... is somebody on the job of making sure nobody gets hurt?" Not to mention... crowds are always bananas on Halloween in Itaewon. Everybody knows that. And if that's the case... yes. Let's get mad.]

How did this one happen? 

Among the factors that led to this crowd crush:

1. It was Halloween and Itaewon. 
   See, every other holiday has festivals and parties all over Seoul—you can go to a Christmas or New Year's or Valentine’s Day party in Kangnam, Jamsil, Hongdae, Jongno, Itaewon, Sinchon, Keondae, and nine other areas that are mad that I forgot them in my list. For Halloween, Itaewon and Hongdae are very much THE destinations, so everyone wanting to dress up and party went to one of those two places. 

2. Hallowe'en is special and kind of weird.
   For a crowd to get THIS big, it has to be a holiday that's celebrated by Koreans. At least...  enough Koreans. If it were celebrated by all Koreans, there'd be parties all over town (see above)... so Hallowe'en is weird, because it's celebrated by a lot of Koreans (mostly younger ones who had Halloween parties at their English academies), but it's still mainly associated with foreigners (who mostly live in Itaewon). This odd confluence is the reason you'd have a lot of people wanting to celebrate, but also find all on them crammed into one or two places to do it.

It was the first “post-pandemic” Halloween. 

3. For partygoers:
   The Covid pandemic isn’t *actually* over, but regulations are relaxing and people are moving a bit more freely. Anyone who likes Halloween parties, but didn’t get to go in 2020 or 2021, was sure as hell going to go balls to the wall this year!

4. For Bars and Clubs:
  If you think the pandemic was tough on people who like to party, imagine how much harder it was for people whose livelihoods depend on selling stuff to partygoers! With that “post-pandemic” feeling, every club and bar with an online presence was sure as shooting planning a “Hallowe’en is Back!” Event to bring out the customers. And bring them out they did. 

5. It happened around 10-11:00pm. 
   This is exactly when the early partners, who came for dinner but have a bedtime or curfew, are leaving the area, and the late night partiers, who plan to go until dawn, are showing up. That means a lot of coming and going at the same time, so traffic would be heavier coming both in and out of the subway station -- and one of the busiest subway exits was right around the corner from the crush.

6. Midterm exams just ended. 
   This means that all the university students who have been stressed out about midterm tests and wanted to cut loose, needed a place to do so. Where better than Itaewon, where the Halloween parties are?

I've watched a few videos about crowd crushes -- junior was curious about them after the Indonesia disaster earlier this year, and here are a few things we learned.

7. First: a large crowd can turn into a crush unexpectedly 
   It doesn't take much with a large enough crowd. If the people at the back are nudging the people ahead of them with light pressure, that's no problem... except if the crowd is 200 people deep, and each layer nudges the row ahead with that same slight increase in pressure... well, a light nudge in every direction at once, multiplied by 200, is enough to pin someone so tightly they can't breathe. The crowd doesn't even need to be loud, wild, or panicked, for it to happen.

8. Second: Such a big crowd makes it hard to communicate. 
   That same large crowd is big enough that the people at the back or outside might not know, or hear, what is happening at the front, or center, of the press. At a rock concert, everyone's paying attention to the singer, so the performer could stop the music, ask everybody to take three steps back, and stop pushing. There was no center of attention for this crowd that could stop the music and ask everyone to stop pushing. The specific place where this happened is especially bad for communication, because it's a narrower bottleneck between two wider streets (see map)
Courtesy of google maps and imac screenshots

The bottleneck is the bridge of an H, with brick walls on every side. On one end was the main Itaewon strip with a subway station people were trying to get to -- or out of -- and the main restaurant/club backstreet just back from the main stretch on the other end. This means that the disaster was around a corner from many of the people who were pushing and shoving to try and get through the crowd. They could never have known.

I'm not going to post photos or video clips (I've seen them, though)...but that crowd was definitely deep enough that the people at the back didn't know what was going on in the center. 

I hope you're all safe, my dear ones.

I am steadily having my mind changed on the theory that there isn't really one spot to place blame here. Diffusion of blame -- each of the groups responsible for the problem aren't responsible for enough of the problem that they see an incentive to changing their behavior (see, for example, the US political process) -- makes it easy for groups to point fingers and say "It's out of my hands" but... I've seen Korean police navigate massive protests and big rallies and counter-rallies close enough together that it's a surprise violence didn't break out... with surprisingly minimal damage to life and limb. 

Reports I am hearing from people I know who were in Itaewon that day are saying to me that the crowds were absolutely nuts hours before the crushing incident, which means there was time to deploy police and get the crowding in hand. That this didn't happen is inexcusable: no, the Halloween party isn't run by a single organization the way a protest or a tourism festival is, so there isn't a point contact to talk to the police about expected crowds, or an organization with an insurance company ready to answer the phone, or pay whoever it is that makes crowd size estimates, but it's well known that Halloween is bonkers in Itaewon, and the writing on the wall was there that it was going to be unusually busy, because... the writing was literally on the Facebook walls of dozens of clubs and restaurants and other venues promoting their Saturday Night Halloween Bash. The police should have been on site in very very large numbers by 4pm that day, certainly by 7pm, and whoever makes that call missed it, and now 150 people are dead who didn't have to die.

I have changed my mind.

So what happens next?

Well, after the Sewol Ferry disaster, Koreans came together in sorrow and solidarity in a really cool way. I hope the communal grief experience ends up being one that pulls Koreans together in a tough time.

After the initial outpouring, it started getting political, as the opposition party started attacking the party in power for its slow, confused and jumbled response, and from there the Sewol disaster and the yellow ribbon that symbolized it began to be a symbol of political conflict instead of grief and solidarity.

There were clear, actionable responses along the lines of safety standards and rigor in regulation checking with the Sewol, but I don't know if that will happen here. The confluence of those eight danger conditions, all at once, in that specific time and place, was a great example of the swiss cheese model of a disaster. You could hold a hundred festivals in Itaewon and not repeat this disaster -- and they have. The things that prevent a crowd crush -- and there are some -- aren't particularly useful if they're installed in that spot, because the next crowd crush in Korea might be in Busan, or outside the stadium before or after a Kpop concert or a big sports event, or in City Hall during a World Cup soccer game, or on the morning of a super mega discount crazy sale at a shopping center. If that alley in Itaewon should have guard rails and direction arrows, about a hundred other places around Seoul -- entrances and exits for concert or sports venues, outdoor festival locations, subway exits with narrow stairwells that open into popular shopping, clubbing or event-having neighborhoods, subway stations close to once-a-year-events, and public protest spaces, should all be kitted out with the same things.

That might be a good idea... but there isn't a clear fall guy to blame for this one the way there was for the Sewol Ferry Disaster, so let's hope it doesn't turn into a political fight. [*Update... see above. I am changing my mind on this... but I'm still not convinced the event creates the kind of political leverage the Sewol did. It might, though.*]

Here are some of the things that can prevent a repeat crowd crush:
--Steel barriers separating people walking one way and the other way.

They could put these up, but if that alley needs steel barriers, about a hundred other alleys around Seoul need them, too.

--CCTVs and computer modeling that predicts when an area will reach danger level

Someone should already be at work designing a Seoul-wide system for observing crowd density, with details about which measures should happen at which point.

--Close down the subway stations serving the busiest areas 

The Seoul Fireworks Festival already closes down the subway stations serving the busiest areas closest to the fireworks display. The train doesn't even stop: it just passes through that station until the event is over, and then subways show up to bring people home. There should be a rule that the subway stations stop dropping people off at a station once crowd density reaches some threshold: this could be the next level intervention, if police deployed haven't made an impact on the crowding. This might not work as well as it does for the fireworks festival, because that has a clear ending after which nobody is still trying to go to Yeouido, so urban planners might have better ideas than I have.

--Putting up LED signs around subway exits and narrow but busy alleys that can flash instructions like "This subway exit closed. Please cross the street" "Dangerous Crowding Ahead: Take An Alternate Route" Make sure these instructions are multilingual.

--Spreading out the time of an event -- after a crowd crush in Mecca, Hajj organizers started giving people passes that told them what time of day they could attend the most crowded parts of the Hajj ritual, so that people would be coming all day long, instead of all at once.

This could happen at every festival in Seoul, and maybe should. Someone could design a process where clubs and bars and restaurants get assigned hours of the day, or days of the weekend, to host their own festival event so that the stream of visitors is spread out, instead of every bar in Itaewon planning an event from 9pm-1am. It might take some tweaks to get a system everyone feels is fair, but it could work if some stickler in the bureaucracy really wanted to make himself a pain in the ass of every business proprietor in busy areas.

Again, if these measures are implemented in Itaewon, they should happen in a dozen areas around Seoul -- around Lotte Mall and Myeongdong on big sale days, around the stadiums and sports watching venues during the World Cup, and all protest zones. 

My hope is that this was enough of a freak incident that nobody finds a way to turn it into a political bludgeon, no dumbass starts making arguments that there's something about Korean culture that makes Koreans particularly prone to crushing each other at Halloween parties, nor that foreign cultural festivals are clearly a blasphemy and Dangunshinhwa must be punishing Korea for letting its culture be sullied with foreign traditions.

Celebrity pastor blames the gays in five.... four.... three....

Keep safe, everyone. Hug the people you love, and keep your head on straight next time you go to a busy event.