South Korea has entered a period of national mourning following the tragic events that recently took place in Itaewon, Seoul.
On October 29, a crowd surge in a narrow alley next to the landmark Hamilton Hotel caused the death of at least 153 people and severely injured 82 others, at least 19 of which were left in critical condition.
A crowd surge is when a large number of people try to move into a relatively small space all at once, which is exactly what happened in Itaewon.
According to survivors and witnesses, the reason for the crowd surge happened was “forceful pushing.” The alley in which it happened is inclined at an angle. Reportedly, people who were at the top of the alley began pushing downward, not realizing that those at the bottom were falling. YouTuber Seon Ye Jung recalled his experience of being stuck in the middle of the crowd and being saved by his friend.
Behind me, people were shouting things like ‘Push! We’re stronger! We can win this, haha!’ and began pushing. Some of us were trying to get the crowd to follow the right-hand traffic again, but it was no use. I was honestly being pushed and shoved around against my will.
Then, all of a sudden, chaos ensued and everyone started pushing back and forth aggressively—like a tug of war. It didn’t take too long before I started feeling the sheer force of the people pushing. My vision started fading.
My friend, who was there with me, is stronger than I am. So they held on to me and helped me withstand the force. Had I not been with my friend, I would’ve absolutely fallen.
— Seon Yeo Jung
But what could cause 153 people (as of this writing) to pass after falling in an alley? In such cases, it is often tempting to attribute the casualties to a stampede, as when that happens it becomes nearly impossible for those who fall to escape trampling. Yet, according to experts, the main cause of death in a crowd surge is actually suffocation.
According to Steve Allen, a consultant at Crowd Safety, “When it goes wrong is when the crowd collapses and people behind them are going on top of the people in front of them who are already horizontal.” People get pressed together so tightly that it becomes impossible to breathe. In fact, the force that is exerted on the body can reportedly even bend steel. In some cases, people pass out and even die while still standing up, their bodies being held in place by the packed crowd.
Following the tragic crowd surge that took place at Astroworld in 2021, G. Keith Still, professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England, explained what happens when an individual gets fatally caught in a crowd surge.
It takes 30 seconds before you lose consciousness, and around about six minutes, you’re into compressive or restrictive asphyxia. That’s a generally the attributed cause of death — not crushing, but suffocation.
— G. Keith Still
While trampling can be fatally dangerous, it does not often lead to large numbers of casualties. The inability to breathe, however, does. Having studied similar other tragic accidents, experts have concluded that the main underlying cause of death in a crowd surge is asphyxiation, which is when the body is deprived of oxygen. On the scene of the Itaewon tragedy, people suffered suffocation and cardiac arrest, which ultimately caused most of the casualties.
There were many elements that ultimately added up to the tragic results in Itaewon, including the lifting of social distancing mandates and the lack of crowd control. As the authorities investigate the incident, South Korea expects to see much stronger safety measures implemented going forward.
For more on what happened, click on the following articles.