To avoid another tragic stampede, education is vital

Better crowd control and bigger security presence would have also possibly avoided, or at least lessened the devastating aftermath of the Seoul tragedy


Rasha Abu Baker

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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Published: Mon 31 Oct 2022, 10:49 PM

As the sickening scenes of Saturday night’s Halloween stampede in Seoul, South Korea continue to spread around the globe, families and friends assembled at a nearby community centre to identify and mourn the loss of their loved ones – 153 people, mostly teenagers and young adults in their 20s, while helping the injured survivors come to terms with the tragedy.

This and other similar recent tragedies raise important questions on how such avoidable disasters continue to happen and some of the preventative measures we should employ to empower youngsters in understanding how to avoid, if possible, and survive such disasters, like stampedes and crowd crush. One way to do this would be for parents and educators to make a conscious effort to start raising awareness and educate the youth on the potential dangers of mass gatherings, how to identify any early warning signs and hopefully stay safe if they are unfortunately caught up in these devastating events, either indoors or outdoors.

There are some differences between a stampede and a crush. Stampedes are usually created when a crowd is fleeing a real or perceived danger, while a crowd crush is created by the press of human bodies on a central point or points. Both leave little to no room for people to manoeuvre, and when crowds push against each other in search of escape, this can lead to many dangers, including asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen, trampling and cardiac arrest.

The incidents where people have been caught in deadly stampedes is on the rise. Over the last 18 months alone, we have witnessed seven tragic incidents with at least 407 people losing their lives, mainly young women and men in their 20s. In April 2021, 44 people were crushed to death at an overcrowded religious bonfire festival in Israel. In November 2021, 10 people were killed and scores injured in a crush at the opening night of rapper Travis Scott's Astroworld Music Festival in Houston, Texas, triggered by a surge of fans pushing toward the stage. In January 2022, 12 Hindu pilgrims died and more than a dozen more were injured in a stampede at the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in Kashmir during events to mark the New Year. In January 2022, a stampede at a church on the outskirts of Liberia's capital, Monrovia, killed 29 people during an all-night Christian worship event. In May 2022, 31 people died during a stampede at a church in Nigeria's southern Rivers state, after people who turned up to receive food at the church broke through a gate.

In October 2022, a stampede at a soccer stadium in Indonesia killed 130 people, including more than 40 minors, and injured hundreds more, reportedly after police fired rounds of “nonlethal munitions”, including tear gas, at attendees after some fans began entering the field. And now, on Saturday, 153 people died when a 100,000-strong crowd were crushed on a narrow street during Halloween festivities in Itaewon, in South Korea’s capital, Seoul.

There are many important lessons to be learned from such horrific and preventable tragedies by all concerned parties - namely the local authorities, first responders, event organizers, young people, parents and educators.

As always, education has a key part to play in effective safeguarding. Having the knowledge and awareness of how to spot dangerous situations and effectively handle them will enable people to make the right decisions for themselves.

It would be massively helpful if more children and young adults are empowered by their parents and educators about how to survive a crowded environment becoming out of control. One man was filmed desperately trying to climb a building to escape the crowd beneath him, some others managed to seek haven in nearby bars and restaurants while others were lucky to be extracted to safety by good Samaritans after being trampled. But ideally, more people could have been saved if they had spotted the dangers, relied on their gut instincts and avoided entering a heavily populated and over-crowded area in the first place.

Paul Wertheimer, one of the world's leading experts on crowd safety, gave his insight into crowd control, crowd dynamics and staying safe to the website, Here are some of his tips on how to survive a stampede: Stay on your feet; conserve energy – don't push against the crowd and don't yell or scream; use sign language to communicate with those around you (point, wave, even use your eyes; keep your hands up by your chest, like a boxer – it allows you movement and protects your chest; if you're in danger, ask people to crowd surf you out; if someone extends their hand for help, grab hold to keep them up.

On how to escape a stampede, Wertheimer has developed a technique for getting out of a crush called the accordion method: "After you're pushed forward, like in a wave, there's a lull. That lull is your chance to move, and the way you move is on a diagonal, between pockets of people. There's always space between people. A couple of steps sideways, another wave surge, then another couple of steps in the next lull. You work your way out that way till you get to the periphery."

In the case of the incident in Seoul, authorities could have put more safety measures in place ahead of the festivities. They knew the Halloween weekend would be busy as this was the first major gathering since Covid-19 restrictions were lowered.

They could have cordoned off the narrowest roads and spaces such as the ones involved in this incident in anticipation of large crowds and avoided the funnelling effect. Better crowd control and bigger security presence would have also possibly avoided, or at least lessened the devastating aftermath of this tragedy.

In other crowd-attracting events, ensuring that there are enough exits, that they are clearly marked, that attendees are aware of safety procedures, and that maximum capacities are adhered to can help ensure a safe event.

It would also be helpful if organisers and staff are more vigilant about health and safety measures in events such as concerts, festivals, religious gatherings and football matches, keeping a strict count on crowd numbers and turning people away to avoid overcapacity.

On an airplane, we are treated to legally required pre-flight safety announcements – perhaps local authorities should consider this as a way to remind crowds to keep a safe distance.

There is no quick fix for this situation, people will gather, especially the young and adventurous, and crowds will form. Luckily, in most cases, these crowds will not turn into literal life and death struggles for the participants, but sometimes, as we have seen again this past weekend, they do – and I can’t help but wonder if things would have been different if those youngsters had learnt more about the dangers of being in a large crowd.

As a mother, I am fully aware of the old adage that a little knowledge goes a long way, and you may rest assured that I use any and every opportunity to instil a little knowledge, each day, in my children’s young minds, to hopefully guide them and protect them from such deadly circumstances. In the meantime, the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives in Seoul are uppermost in my thoughts this week, I pray they find solace.

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