Thousands gather on anniversary of Halloween crush in Seoul – as families demand fresh investigation

People gather for a rally to mark the first anniversary of the crush that killed more than 150 people (AP)
People gather for a rally to mark the first anniversary of the crush that killed more than 150 people (AP)

Relatives of victims of last year's devastating Halloween crush in Seoul demanded an independent investigation into the disaster as they marked the anniversary with a massive memorial service.

The crush, one of the biggest peacetime disasters in South Korea, killed 159 people, most of them aged in their 20s and 30s, who had gathered in the nightlife district of Itaewon for Halloween celebrations.

Commemorating the anniversary, the families, activists and others visited the Itaewon area and offered condolences at an alley where the crush happened. They also attended multi-religious prayer services for their loved ones. They chanted slogans asking President Yoon Suk Yeol to offer a more sincere apology, and for safety minister Lee Sang-min to resign over the disaster.

"Apologise, apologise," they shouted.

The group marched through Seoul before arriving at a square for a memorial service, which drew thousands of people. In a speech, Lee Jeong-min, a representative for the families, urged Mr Yoon to support efforts to legislate a special law to allow an independent investigation.

"We did our utmost to raise our children but we couldn't even touch them when they vanished all of sudden," he said. "Where can we talk about our resentment toward this reality?

"The special law would the most important legislation to find the cause of the Itaewon disaster and discuss the prevention of recurrences of similar incidents."

Several opposition politicians criticised Mr Yoon for failing to attend the ceremony, or they accused his government of seeking to conceal the truth of the disaster, something officials have denied. The opposition legislators also vowed to pass the special law to get to the bottom of the tragedy.

The victims' families said they had invited Mr Yoon to the memorial ceremony, but he instead visited a Seoul church to attend a service for the victims.

Mr Yoon's office did not explicitly explain why he missed the memorial, but local media reported it was due to concerns that the event could be politically used by his rivals.

In a speech at the church, Mr Yoon said the day of the disaster "was the day when I felt the greatest sadness in all my life". He offered deep sympathy to the families and pledged to build a safer South Korea.

In January, a police special investigation concluded police and municipal officials failed to formulate effective crowd control steps despite correctly anticipating a huge number of people in Itaewon.

Investigators said police had also ignored hotline calls by pedestrians who warned of swelling crowds before the surge turned deadly. More than 20 police and other officials are reportedly on trial over the disaster. But no top-level officials have been charged or held accountable - a reason why the families and opposition politicians are calling for an independent probe.

This year's Halloween celebrations in South Korea are largely subdued, with most bars, restaurants and shops avoiding Halloween-themed events in memory of the victims. Only a small number of people dressed in Halloween costumes were seen in Itaewon and other major entertainment zones in Seoul on Friday and Saturday.