Monday, October 31, 2022

More Systems Crashes: Media Here Doing The Right Things

Posted by Peter Quennell

Over 150 died in this tiny space

1. Global Media Context

Many countries have media awards, the Pulitzers being the main ones in the US.

But there dont seem to be any that specifically reward reporting on systems and how they performed. 

Typically when things go wrong the mainstream media will tend to find someone (like Guede and Dr Mignini) on whom to heap all blame.

They ignore root causes, barely mention systems, get things wrong, fail to correct… and nothing improves. In the Perugia case there was a massive systems failure - by foreign media itself.

2. India & Korea Crashes

The whole world saw the aftermaths of two systems crashes last weekend. A combined total of over 300 died.

Perhaps under the influence of YouTube, which is becoming Systems Central these days, in the footbridge collapse in India and the crowd crush in Seoul, Korea, the systems are getting a public look.

It is already reported that the footbridge in India, after six months of closure for an overhaul, had just been reopened under pressure from MANAGERS for Diwali Day before ENGINEERS and INSPECTORS had signed off.

And in Seoul, exactly where the police were deployed that night, and what kind of police, doing what, is under the media microscope.

Only 130 or so cops, mainly instructed to look for drugs, were in the area where over 100,000 were expected to come. In sharp contrast, over 7,000 cops were deployed in another area because of a hint of violence, where the crowd was to be much less.

Here is the Associated Press report. Ignore the headline and the occasional simplistic “let’s blame the police”. The reporting in boldface on which systems broke or could work is pretty good. 

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Seoul police assigned 137 officers to manage a crowd of Halloween revelers anticipated to number more than 100,000 over the weekend — a decision that has come under intense criticism following the deaths of more than 150 people when the group surged.

By comparison, nearly 7,000 police officers were sent to another part of the South Korean capital on Saturday to monitor dueling protests that drew tens of thousands but still fewer people than flocked to the popular nightlife district of Itaewon the same night.

Even the task force created to investigate why the crowd surged, with 475 members, is more three times larger than the detail assigned to crowd control…

The national government has insisted there was no way to predict the crowd would get out of control.

Experts disagree. Deploying so few police officers, they said, showed officials were poorly prepared despite knowing ahead of time that there would be a huge gathering following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in recent months.

On top of assigning more personnel, police and officials in the Yongsan district, which governs Itaewon, should have banned cars from some streets and taken other measures to ease the crowding in narrow lanes like the one where the deaths occurred, experts said.

Instead, the 137 officers in Itaewon were assigned to monitor crime, with a particular focus on narcotics use, meaning that for all practical purposes “no one was looking after pedestrian safety,” said Kong Ha-song, a disaster prevention professor at South Korea’s Woosuk University…

Emergency workers were so overwhelmed by the number of people lying motionless on the ground that they asked pedestrians to help them with CPR. But Choi Sukjae, an emergency medicine specialist and chief spokesperson of the Korean Emergency Medical Association, said CPR, which ideally should be administered within a handful of minutes, wouldn’t have made much of a difference in many cases since the paramedics were delayed getting to the scene because the area was so packed.

Kong, the disaster prevention professor, said more police and government workers should have been called on to monitor potential bottleneck points. He suggested that the crush may have been prevented if authorities had enforced one-way walking lanes, blocked entry to some narrow pathways, and temporarily closed Itaewon’s subway station to prevent an excessive number of people moving in the same direction.

Officials could have also temporarily closed Itaewon’s main road to cars, as they did during the annual Itaewon Global Village Festival earlier in October, thereby giving people more room to spread out, Kong said.

Lee, the urban planning professor, criticized Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min, who claimed, without elaborating, that having more police and fire department personnel on the ground wouldn’t have prevented the tragedy.

When asked about the number of officers assigned, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said 137 was still more than it sent in 2020 and 2021, excluding units specifically assigned to virus control measures. Police and government officials have acknowledged this year’s crowd was bigger — but it was not clear by how much.

Kong added that the lack of a central organizer on Saturday — when young people flocked to bars and night clubs to celebrate Halloween but there was not one specific event promoted — may have contributed to the tragedy.

“Our country usually does a good job in following the manual and maintaining crowd control at events where there’s a specific organizer,” he said. “But officials are often unsure what to do or even don’t care about events that aren’t created by a specific organizer … although it’s those events that usually require a closer watch.”

Hong Ki-hyeon, a senior official with the national police agency, acknowledged that problem during a news conference Monday, saying police do not have an established way to deal with such gatherings.

“In events like festivals that have a specific organizer, discussions are made between related municipalities, police, fire departments and medical experts who prepare and cooperate under different roles,” Hong said. “That is what we lacked regarding this accident”...

In the two previous years, the district’s preparations for the Halloween festivities were focused on preventing the spread of COVID-19 among partygoers...

South Korea has a long history of deadly crowd crushes and stampedes, although none as deadly as Saturday’s…

Disaster managers around the world can benefit from this. And many who might otherwise have lost their lives.

Posted by Peter Quennell on 10/31/22 at 10:23 PM in


I didn’t think of it before but media awards for reporting systems right could be one outcome of our case. John K would surely approve.

The Pulitzers are actually chosen at Colombia University NYC, just a couple of miles from where I live. I’ll check them out.

Posted by Peter Quennell on 11/01/22 at 11:15 AM | #

I appreciate this focus on systems for preventing crushes, and possibly resultant injuries and deaths.

I experienced a similar scary episode on Halloween 2007 in NYC. I was trying to get uptown on 6th Avenue that night to get to a particular store, not realizing that the Village Halloween Parade was going to attract so many spectators (up to 2 million, or so I’ve read!). Luckily, the police were out in force (including on horseback) and 6th Avenue was closed to traffic. However, there were blockades all along the west side of the avenue, and there were only sporadic openings to cross to the other side (which is where I wanted to be). Before I knew it, I was crushed on all sides! The crush carried me across the avenue, but there was no escaping the crowd for what felt like a half-hour (but was probably shorter). Frankly, it was terrifying!

I finally escaped to the east of the crowd, abandoned my “errand”, and went east to catch a subway home. It was a lesson learned for me!

There was a good article in yesterday’s New York Times about what to do if you find yourself in a large crowd and threatened with a crush. Here’s the link:

I know it’s deprecated, but I couldn’t help thinking about Meredith on this anniversary. RIP.

Posted by Earthling on 11/02/22 at 01:33 AM | #

Scary! Which is good, actually, as it drives benefits. Resonates for me personally, as on that exact same night I had to drive a Geneva friend and his bags from Newark Airport to the East Village and would usually cross that miles-long closed route at about midpoint.

Via the street closures I was edged all the way down to the Wall Street area and saw the trip become 3-4 hours longer.

Fair enough though. One of the commonest “likes” about NYC by the million or so weekly from elsewhere is that it is so walkable and forever becoming more-so. We still see some “pedestrian gridlock” but footpaths have been widened and bike lanes added and street-side parking whittled down in the central areas. Subway capacity is huge of course with both local and express tracks.

A lot of systems improvement was promoted by Mayor Bloomberg - too rarely in a political leader, he was/is a systems guy. Too often those elected here are lawyers (maybe good at regulatory frameworks but not at all at systems change) or financial manipulators (Trump and Sunak) who might have a genuine desire for improvement but lack the right toolset.

Is that NY Times article seeable by everybody? Or is it behind the paywall? If the latter we can excerpt and highlight it. It could be made much more operationally useful, worldwide, if it overtly said “this is about (personal) safety systems”.

Systems is the common language of development and everybody should be taught to use it. In the latest Seoul reporting there is too much about “measures” and “procedures” and “guidelines” and “management” which is just waffly and unpromising.

Posted by Peter Quennell on 11/02/22 at 10:30 AM | #

Bloomberg reports. In Seoul the seemingly ferocious investigation taskforce raided police headquarters!

They were after recordings of calls for help from the area on the night (there were 10 or more) perhaps fearing that those messages could be disappeared fast - as happened here in the Secret Service after the January 6 insurrection.

On the night, bars and restaurants in the area remained operating. Their music could be heard long after 150-plus were dead. That was bizarre and now one of the causes of real anger. This kind of thing might mean many enterprises there may never reopen.

Posted by Peter Quennell on 11/02/22 at 10:44 AM | #

Hi Pete,

Yes, the New York Times article is behind a paywall (we have a subscription). One piece of useful advice: if you drop something (purse, cell phone), let it go. Don’t bend down to pick it up, because you might not be able to get back up. Better to lose an item than one’s life!

Another factor (not really mentioned in the article) is that people in dire circumstances don’t always behave “logically” or normally. A co-worker that next day said she had also gotten stuck in the crush and was frightened. She also witnessed a conflict break out among two guys, which luckily didn’t progress to a major fight.

I remember that when I was “stuck” between people and couldn’t control my own movements (anathema to humans everywhere, but especially New Yorkers on the street!), I kept saying to the guy in front of me something like “Excuse me! Excuse me!” like I was expecting him to get out of my way. Finally, exasperated, he retorted, “I can’t move either!” It was truly frightening, for a while there. I had to go into a Taco Bell afterward to decompress!

I loved Mayor Bloomberg, and his emphasis on elimination of smoking inside NYC buildings. Unfortunately, there were “legacy smokers” in my work environment, nearing retirement, who refused to give it up, and for some reason the smoke came directly to my desk area through the vents. My landlady (who lived above me) also smoked like a chimney. And everywhere you went on the streets, smokers were lighting up (because they couldn’t smoke inside, presumably). It was quite awful (both mentally and physically) for me, a lifelong nonsmoker. I had a horrible case of bronchitis by the time I left NYC.

I know there were laws in place about the workplace smoking, but I was warned by my supervisor in the first week “not to complain because [the smoker] has been here 30 years and she’s a manager”. So I didn’t complain. I don’t know how Bloomberg’s systems could’ve prevented that situation. It was quite demoralizing.

By the way, it’s quite terrifying to see that photo of the tiny side street where the Seoul crush happened. RIP to all the victims and sympathy to the families and survivors.

Posted by Earthling on 11/02/22 at 12:34 PM | #

Hi Earthling. The shock to me is that this happened when you were stationery. Early reports from Seoul called it a stampede there but in fact it was quite the opposite. At the moment I’d go for this solution.

GPS is said to be accurate down to 1 centimeter and the several hundreds cellphones in that area would have been capable of sensing where all the other cellphones are close by.

Thus picking up on eg this deadly density & wave motion, and thus warn users & police in real time.

Sure thing I’ll upload the Times article.  Smokers are all gone by last count! Safe to come by now.

Posted by Peter Quennell on 11/02/22 at 03:55 PM | #
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