Seoul tests crowd safety plan ahead of anniversary of deadly Halloween crush

By Dogyun Kim, Jihyun Jeon

SEOUL (Reuters) -A knot of people jostled and shoved each other on Wednesday in a narrow alleyway in Seoul, before filing patiently past a barricade of police officers in a crowd control drill held ahead of the one-year anniversary of a deadly Halloween crush.

The exercise, showcasing an AI-backed network of nearly 1,000 closed-circuit TV cameras designed to detect and alert against dangerous crowding, was displayed on banks of large screens watched by officials ready to swing into action.

The effort comes after a crowd surge last year led to a crush in a narrow alley in the Itaewon nightlife district, killing 159 people in a disaster blamed on a lack of preparation and crowd control measures, with early calls for help going unanswered.

This year, officials in the South Korean capital said they would work with police, emergency services and local officials to ensure “not a single person gets hurt” during Halloween celebrations.

“The drill focused on how to ensure the safety of citizens by monitoring the situation in real time with the help of cutting-edge science and technology,” said the city’s mayor, Oh Se-hoon.

About 150 volunteers participated in the dry run of an early warning system that will include 909 CCTV cameras in 71 locations by year-end, aiming to analyse crowd movement and density before alerting authorities to signs of danger.

Sixteen areas will be specially monitored by officials ready to intervene and disperse people in response to warnings triggered when three or more individuals are counted in every square meter of any given space.

“It used to be visual assessment in the past, but now we’re operating CCTV … which enables video analysis,” said city safety official Ahn Hyoung-jun, adding that the information gathered would compensate for human error.

The effort was “positive”, said Paek Seung-joo, a specialist in fire and disaster protection at the Open Cyber University of Korea, while warning that preventing large gatherings was critical.

“The fundamental solution is to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

The plan unveiled this week covers just Seoul, rather than the entire nation, he added.

“For that, the central government, not a local government, has to take the lead and come up with a plan to anticipate crowding, manage it, and respond in the event of an emergency.”

Many families of the victims of last year’s disaster say the police investigation left many questions unanswered, while deploring that nobody had been held responsible for the deaths.

The government, which rejected calls to dismiss top officials, has said it had worked hard to set up a system to prevent such disasters and which needed to be properly implemented.

The Seoul anniversary has unnerved authorities elsewhere in the run-up to this year’s celebrations.

In Tokyo, foreign tourists and locals have been urged not to gather at the famed Shibuya scramble crossing in the Japanese capital, which had been a popular spot for Halloween revellers to meet up prior to the COIVD-19 pandemic.

“Officials have grown fearful of a disastrous crowd crush similar to the one in the Itaewon district in Seoul, South Korea,” Shibuya city officials said in a statement.

The safety campaign has involved a ban on street drinking over the Halloween weekend, while videos posted on social media urge: “On Halloween night, everyone should stay away from Shibuya.”

(Reporting by Dogyun Kim, Jihyun Jeon, Minwoo Park and Jack Kim in Seoul, John Geddie in Tokyo; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)