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Families of Seoul crowd crush victims demand apology, accountability

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Cho Mi-eun, whose son died in the Seoul Halloween crowd crush, joined other bereaved family members in calling for government accountability and an apology. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

Cho Mi-eun, whose son died in the Seoul Halloween crowd crush, joined other bereaved family members in calling for government accountability and an apology. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Dec. 21 (UPI) — Family members of the victims of the Halloween crowd crush tragedy that killed 158 people in Seoul are demanding answers and an apology as they slam the South Korean government over what they say is a lack of accountability.

On Wednesday, representatives of a group of 108 families spoke out publicly, sharing their anger and grief over the tragic incident and its aftermath.

“Why did the victims have to die?” said Lee Jeong-min, whose daughter was a victim of the October 29 crush in the nightlife neighborhood of Itaewon.

“So far, no one has explained,” he said. “After the disaster, those responsible shied away from responsibility. Those in charge, including the president, have never met the bereaved families of the victims and apologized.”

Authorities have faced heavy criticism in the wake of the tragedy, as details of minimal police deployment and a botched response to dangerous overcrowding continue to emerge.

Officials have also been accused of dragging their feet on investigating the incident, with a parliamentary probe only getting underway on Wednesday after a lengthy delay caused by political infighting.

Earlier this week, a special police investigation team requested arrest warrants for the former Yongsan district police chief and head of the ward office overseeing Itaewon. However, the family members expressed skepticism that any probes would reach high-level figures.

“The true culprits of the disaster are excluded from the scope of the investigation or are not properly investigated,” Lee, vice president of the organization of victims’ families, said at a briefing for international media in downtown Seoul.

“The investigation is done by the police but the interior minister himself is the suspect,” he said. “So the suspect is doing the investigation.”

The opposition-led parliament passed a motion last week calling for the dismissal of Interior Minister Lee Sang-min, who is the top security official in the country. Lee sparked public anger after the disaster by claiming that more police and emergency personnel would not have prevented the tragedy.

Several other government officials, including Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, have also been under fire for remarks seen as tone-deaf and insensitive.

Cho Mi-eun, whose son died in the Itaewon crush, slammed President Yoon Suk-yeol for attending a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony last week instead of a vigil held by the bereaved families.

“[Yoon] smiled and lifted a wine glass and lit a Christmas tree,” she said, her voice shaking with anger as she held a photo of her son, 24-year-old actor Lee Ji-han. “He missed the opportunity for an apology.”

The president should “embrace the grieving families and explain what is going to happen in the future and punish those who are responsible,” she said.

The victims’ relatives also faulted the government for refusing to help them connect with other families, leaving them to create a support network and set up a public mourning altar on their own.

In addition to an apology and thorough investigation, the families are calling for a proper memorial as well as “active support” for family members and survivors who are experiencing trauma. One 17-year-old high school student who survived the crush was found dead last week in an apparent suicide.

The grief caused by such an unbearable loss was clear among all of the family members who spoke out on Wednesday.

“I can’t sleep at night thinking of you and I can’t accept the pain you must have felt,” Lee Hyo-sook, mother of 30-year-old victim Jung Joo-hee, said through sobs. “I hope you become a pretty star in the sky and find peace wherever you are.”

“I’m sorry I was not able to protect you,” she cried. “But I will find the truth. As long as I am alive, I will find the truth.”

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