Lee, a thirty-year-old office worker who uses the Seoul Metro Line 9 to commute from Dangsan Station to Sinnonhyeon Station, got off the train midway through her journey feeling shortness of breath. Line 9 is infamous for overcrowding during rush hours.
She couldn’t breathe; she felt like she was suffocating during her ride, as though she had a panic attack. As more people kept entering the overcrowded train, Lee couldn’t help imagining the deadly crowd surge in Itaewon and what it must have been like being trapped in the crowd.
Even though I wasn’t there that night, I felt something dreadful like that could happen on the subway, too.
—Lee, office worker
On the night of October 29, a crowd surge struck in a narrow sloped alley in Itaewon, resulting in 156 deaths and 172 injured as of this morning, November 2. The deadliest crowd accident in South Korea’s history seems to have affected people’s daily lives. Though Koreans have been so used to overcrowding in the streets and subways, they are suddenly mindful of how life-threatening these conditions can be.
According to 2021 data from the Seoul Metro, average density during morning rush hour between Noryangjin and Dongjak stations on Line 9, one of the most packed areas, was measured at 185 percent, leaving passengers unable to move freely in the train.
Referred to as hell by commuters, small fights sometimes break out as passengers shove their way in or out of the train, while some fail to get off at their stops. Park Cheong Woong, a professor of safety management at Sejong Cyber University, describes the ordeal of commuters daily.
Subways in Seoul are so packed that it may lead to breathing difficulties or panic attacks for some passengers. But we’ve gotten used to the high density in our daily lives.
— Park Cheong Woong
Lee Song Kyu, head of the Safety Professional Association of Korea, warned there is always a possibility of unexpected crowd disasters during large gatherings or events.
I wouldn’t say there is a big chance crammed subways would lead to a serious crowd crush. But I do think that the Itaewon tragedy has shown us that crowd disasters can happen unexpectedly in day-to-day places. Thus the local authorities, as well as regular people, should remain vigilant about it.
— Lee Song Kyu