Seoul, South Korea
South Korea’s first major Halloween celebration since the end of Covid restrictions turned into tragedy on Saturday night, with at least 151 people, mostly teenagers and young adults, were killed when partygoers swarmed a narrow alley in a popular nightlife district in Seoul, officials said.
Officials are still investigating what caused the incident, but Choi Seong-bum, chief of the Yongsan-gu Fire Department, said it was an “alleged stampede” and that many people fell and at least 82 were injured.
He said at least 19 foreign nationals were among the dead, including people from Iran, Norway, China and Uzbekistan.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called an emergency meeting early Sunday later attended the scene to receive briefings from emergency responders.
Addressing the nation, he called for a period of national mourning “until the disaster is resolved.” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo later said the mourning period would end on November 5.
“Last Halloween, a tragedy happened in the middle of Seoul that shouldn’t have happened,” Yoon said. “I am praying for those who died in the unexpected accident and hope for a speedy recovery for those injured.”
Tens of thousands of revelers flocked to the Itaewon nightclub district on Saturday night for South Korea’s first Halloween celebration since crowd restrictions and face mask rules imposed by the Covid pandemic were lifted.
Witnesses said that before the chaos began, partygoers were so crowded in the narrow streets that it was difficult to move.
“I saw people going to the left and I saw a person going the opposite way. So the person in the middle was stuck, so they couldn’t communicate, they couldn’t breathe,” eyewitness Sung Sehyun told CNN. He said the space was like being “stuck on the subway.”
A video posted on social media shows people applying compresses to other partygoers lying on the ground while waiting for medical help.
“We saw a scene from a movie … like what happens during a war,” witness Park Jung-Hoon, 21, told Reuters. “They were doing CPR here and there and people were rushing because nothing was under control.” It was completely out of control.”
Yonhap news agency reported that some people suffered “cardiac arrest,” a statement it attributed to fire authorities. Emergency officials treated at least 81 people in Seoul’s Itaewon district who reported “difficulty breathing.”
The cause of the beating is still under investigation, but officials said that at 10:24 p.m. when the first emergency calls were received about people who were “buried” in the crowds, there was no gas leak or fire at the site.
Police cordoned off the area and people were seen on social media dressed in Halloween costumes, lay in the streets and on stretchers as first responders provided aid and ambulances lined up to take the injured away.
Dozens of people were transferred to nearby facilities, said Choi Jae-won, head of Yongsan Health Center. The bodies of the victims have been shifted to a number of hospital morgues, officials added.
Seoul city authorities received missing-person reports as friends and families searched for people who attended the event and did not return home.
On Sunday, police officers scanned the sidewalk for personal belongings and IDs as they tried to determine the final toll of the injured and dead.
People fly to Seoul from all over Asia to celebrate Halloween in Itaewon, and this year’s event has been hailed as a welcome return to the holiday after the pandemic. Hotels and tickets to events in the neighborhood have been booked solidly in advance and large crowds are expected.
But just before midnight, the celebrations took a dark turn as the first cries for help rang out from the crowd.
Witness Sung said that earlier in the night he had to push his way through the crowd to escape the busy streets. “I was lucky to cross (but an hour later) I heard that people had died. Because the people were sealed…and the people crowded together.
CNN disaster management expert and national security analyst Juliette Kayyem said Seoul’s urban density and frequent crowds may have played a role in the tragedy.
“People in Seoul are used to being in crowded spaces, so it’s possible that crowded streets don’t bother them at all,” she said. “Panic is always a factor, and there’s a danger that you’ll get too used to being in crowded places.”
It is difficult to determine exactly what may have sparked the crush, but authorities “would have anticipated high numbers … before Saturday night,” she added. “The authorities need to monitor the crowd flow in real time so they can sense the need to evacuate people.”
More than 1700 An emergency response force, including 517 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and about 70 government workers, was dispatched Saturday evening.
In a televised address on Sunday, President Yoon said the accident would be investigated and measures would be taken to prevent similar incidents from happening again.
“We will have relevant ministries, such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Security, conduct emergency inspections not only for Halloween events but also for local festivals, and carefully manage them to ensure that they are conducted in an orderly and safe manner,” Yoon said, adding that “the multi-functional aid system’ to help the injured and the families of the dead.
“I pray for those who died in the unexpected accident and hope for a speedy recovery for those injured,” Yoon said.
Yoon also ordered authorities to “quickly” identify victims for the benefit of the concerned families, said Kim Eun-hye, senior presidential press secretary.
The government has declared the Yongsan-gu district, where Itaewon is located, a special disaster zone.
The US State Department said a US citizen was injured in the beating. “We are working with local authorities to determine if other US citizens have been affected and are prepared to provide consular assistance,” a State Department official said.
World leaders expressed their condolences to South Korea and those affected by the disaster.
“Jill and I send our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones in Seoul,” US President Joe Biden wrote. “We grieve with the people of the Republic of Korea and send our best wishes for a speedy recovery to all those who were injured.”
The United States government is ready to provide South Korea with “whatever support it needs,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted on Saturday.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted: “All our thoughts are with those currently responding and with all South Koreans at this very sad time.” In a tweet written in French and Korean, President Emmanuel Macron said: “France is by your side.”
Once shunned by locals as a seedy red-light district, Itaewon has turned into one of the best party spots in Seoul. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, the area comes alive at night.
It’s also home to Seoul’s thriving Muslim and gay communities, and it’s close to a US Army base.