Lessons from Itaewon, according to an emergency expert 2
The death of many in the Itaewon party was largely attributed to asphyxia—they died of cardiac arrest due to low supply of oxygen. Photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun, EPA-EFE

How to survive a crowd crush: Lessons from Itaewon, according to an emergency expert

“Pag oras na naapakan ang paa mo, natumba ka, wala ka nang control diyan.”
ANCX Staff | Nov 03 2022

Logging in more than 150 people killed and 100 injured, the tragic event at Itaewon last October 30 will go down in history as one of the worst disasters to ever happen in South Korea. It’s quite unthinkable how the incident took place in the popular district, and why preventive measures seemed to have been lacking in an event of such magnitude—reports have it the Halloween affair was attended by about 100,000 people.

While many have been referring to the incident as a stampede, Dr. Ted Esguerra, an emergency management expert, told SRO recently that what happened in Itaewon is technically called a crowd crush. People surged towards a narrow street or choke point, causing a domino effect. This is different from a stampede where people actually have space to run.

Esguerra said a crowd crush usually happens when there are more people in an area than it can handle. “Parang barko lang ‘yan. Kung 500 ang capacity tapos nilagyan mo ng 1,500, talagang magkakagulo yan.”

Crowd management should have been in place, said Esguerra, with designated activity areas and exit points. There should have been security and safety personnel that managed the crowd. The attendees should have been made aware of all the safety guidelines beforehand. Considering what happened, it looks like these measures were missing. 

A person could die in a crowd crush if he gets trampled on. “Pag oras na naapakan ang paa mo, natumba ka, wala ka nang control diyan. Lalo na pag ang crowd mabilis ang movement, maka-crush ka talaga,” the emergency expert added.

Itaewon tragedy
The crowd crush in Itaewon district last Oct. 31 claimed more than 150 lives, including foreigners. Photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun, EPA-EFE

The death of many in the Itaewon party was, however, largely attributed to asphyxia—they died of cardiac arrest due to low supply of oxygen. “Wala kang makuhang oxygen kasi lahat sa paligid mo bumubuga din [ng carbon dioxide]. Yun ang problem,” Esguerra explained. “Masakit na kamatayan yan kasi kahit huminga ka, kinukulang ka sa oxygen.” 

The emergency management expert reminded viewers the human brain can only last 10 minutes without oxygen. “Pero yung 10 minutes, grabe na ang epekto nun sa brain cells,” he pointed out. “Sa South Korea malamig. Kung sa Pilipinas yan nangyari, pinaka-maximum sa tingin ko is 8 minutes kasi tropical country tayo. Mas madaling masira ang cell sa mainit kaysa sa malamig.”


In case of a crowd crush 

There’s no fool-proof way to survive a crowd crush because this would depend on many factors. But Esguerra advised to familiarize oneself with the area ideally before an event. And in case commotion ensues, “Dapat huwag kang matumba. On your feet ka [dapat] parati. Kung kailangan mong humawak sa kuwelyo ng nasa harap mo, gawin mo,” he added. Feet should be in boxing stance (feet shoulder width apart) to maintain one’s balance.

Here are more tips from Esguerra: Make sure to have enough breathing space by stretching one’s hands toward the front. “Kasi kung masyadong malapit ka [sa taong nasa unahan mo], maiipit ka [at hindi ka makakahinga],” the SRO guest added.

If you find a post, hold on to it and maneuver yourself away from the crowd surge. Avoid getting sandwiched to a wall.

Itaewon tragedy
A temporary mourning space can be found near the scene of a tragic Halloween stampede in Itaewon district. Photo by EPA-EFE/Yonhap ​ 

Better when prepared 

But really there’s no better protection than prevention. To prevent a crowd crush from happening, Esguerra said an event should be thoroughly planned in order to foresee the movement of the crowd. The activity area and exits should be clearly marked. “Kasi ang tao kapag hindi mo sila tinuruan kung saan ang exit, ang alam lang niyang labasan ay kung saan siya pumasok. So magkakabuhul-buhol [ang mga tao].”

It is best to designate specific areas for particular sectors—say the PWDs, seniors, children, etc. Attendees should also be made aware of the time frame when they could only be in the event place. There should be enough safety and security personnel to guide and direct the crowd.

According to Esguerra, the Philippines is prone to these kinds of incidents because we hold and attend a lot of events—from religious events to campaign sorties and concerts. But the good thing about Filipinos is that we have past experiences to look back on and learn from. 

“Hinog na hinog ang pagtatayo natin ng event management team,” Esguerra observed, and this is thanks to the cooperation of government and non-government unit. “Ang ating mga pulis, sundalo, coast guards, security guards, LGUs ay nag-uusap sila para mag-station na ng mga ambulansya. Yung mga corridors of movement hanggang sa probinsya, markado. Segurista tayo e.”

Esguerra said event organizers are regularly given a refresher on BICS, or Basic Incident Command System, to avoid tragic incidents from happening. He cited big assemblies like the Feast of the Nazarene, the FIBA Asia Cup, and the ASEAN Summit, which turned out smoothly. There are major events expecting mammoth crowds in the coming months. Here’s hoping the people behind them take all necessary precautions and the events play out smoothly and safely for everyone. Since accidents happen when we least expect them to, best to always be on our toes and never underestimate taking safety provisions.