Seoul, South Korea
South Korea’s first big Halloween celebration since the end of Covid restrictions turned to tragedy on Saturday night, when at least 151 people, mostly teenagers and young adults, died as partygoers surged through a narrow alley in a popular nightlife district in Seoul, officials said.
Authorities are still investigating what caused the incident, but Choi Seong-bum, chief of the Yongsan-gu Fire Department, said it was a “presumed stampede” and that many people fell, injuring at least 82.
The dead included at least 19 foreign nationals, including people from Iran, Norway, China and Uzbekistan, he said.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol convened an emergency meeting in the early hours of Sunday, and later visited the scene to receive briefings from emergency officials.
Addressing the nation, he called a national period of mourning “until the handling of the accident is concluded.” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo later said the period of mourning would end at midnight of November 5.
“A tragedy that should not have happened occurred in the middle of Seoul last night on Halloween,” Yoon said. “I pray for those who died in an unexpected accident and hope that the injured will recover quickly.”
Tens of thousands of revelers had poured into the Itaewon nightclub district on Saturday night to enjoy South Korea’s first Halloween celebration since crowd limits and face mask rules imposed by the Covid pandemic were lifted.
Witnesses said that even before the chaos broke out, partygoers were packed so tightly in the narrow streets that it was difficult to move around.
“I saw people going to the left side and I saw the person getting to the opposite side. So, the person in the middle got jammed, so they had no way to communicate, they could not breathe,” Witness Sung Sehyun told CNN. He said the space was like a “jammed subway.”
Video posted to social media showed people performing compressions on other partygoers lying on the ground as they waited for medical help.
“We saw a scene from a movie… like things happening during a war,” witness Park Jung-Hoon, 21, told Reuters. “They were doing CPR here and there and people were rushing in as nothing was being controlled. It was completely out of control.”
Yonhap News Agency reported that some people had suffered from “cardiac arrest,” attributing the statement to fire authorities. Emergency officials assisted at least 81 people in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood reporting “difficulty breathing.”
The cause of the crush is still under investigation, though officials said there were no gas leaks or fires on site when they received the first emergency calls of people being “buried” in crowds at 10:24 p.m.
Police closed off the area and social media videos showed people wearing Halloween costumes lying in the streets and on stretchers as first responders rendered aid and queues of ambulances formed to take away the injured.
Dozens of people were transferred to nearby facilities, said Choi Jae-won, the head of Yongsan Health Center. The bodies of the victims were transferred to multiple hospital mortuaries, authorities added.
The Seoul city government received reports of missing people as friends and families searched for people known to be at the event who didn’t come home.
On Sunday, police officers scanned the sidewalk for personal belongings and pieces of identification as they tried to determine the final number of injured and dead.
People fly into Seoul from all over Asia to celebrate Halloween in Itaewon, and this year’s event was seen as a welcome return of festivities after the pandemic. Hotels and ticketed events in the neighborhood had been booked solid ahead and large crowds were expected.
However, before midnight, celebrations took a dark turn, as the first calls for help were made from within the crowd.
Witness Sung said he had to push his way through the throng earlier in the night to get clear of the busy streets. “I was lucky to get through (but an) hour later, I heard people got killed. Because people got stamped on … and people got jammed together.”
Juliette Kayyem, a disaster management expert and national security analyst for CNN, said the city’s density – and how common crowds are in Seoul – may have played a role in the tragedy.
“People in Seoul are used to being in packed spaces, it’s possible they might not have been fully alarmed by the packed streets,” she said. “Panic is always a factor, and there is a danger of being too used to being in crowded spaces.”
It’s hard to pinpoint what might have triggered the crush – but authorities “would have anticipated high numbers … before Saturday night,” she added. “There is a responsibility on the part of the authorities to be monitoring crowd volume in real time, so they can sense the need to get people out.”
More than 1,700 emergency response forces were dispatched on Saturday night, including 517 firefighters, 1,100 police officials, and about 70 government workers.
In a televised statement on Sunday, President Yoon said the disaster would be investigated and measures put into place to ensure similar incidents never happen again.
“We will have relevant ministries such as the Ministry of the Interior and Safety conduct emergency inspections not only for Halloween events but also for local festivals and thoroughly manage them so they are conducted in an orderly and safe manner,” Yoon said, adding that a “multi-purpose emergency system” would support both the injured and the families of the dead.
“I pray for those who died in an unexpected accident and hope that the injured will recover quickly,” Yoon said.
Yoon also ordered authorities to “rapidly” identify the victims for the sake of worried families, said Senior Presidential Secretary for Public Relations Kim Eun-hye.
The government has declared the district of Yongsan-gu, where Itaewon is located, a special disaster area.
The US State Department said a US citizen was injured in the crush. “We are working with local authorities to determine if any additional US citizens were affected and stand ready to provide consular assistance,” the State Department official said.
Around the world, leaders sent 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 in a statement. “We grieve with the people of the Republic of Korea and send our best wishes for a quick recovery to all those who were injured.”
The United States government is ready to provide South Korea with “any support it needs,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan wrote on Twitter Saturday.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted: “All our thoughts are with those currently responding and all South Koreans at this very distressing time.” In tweet written in French and Korean, President Emmanuel Macron said “France is by your side.”
Itaewon, once shunned by locals as a seedy, red light district, has transformed into one of Seoul’s top party venues. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, the neighborhood comes to life at night.
It is also home to Seoul’s thriving Muslim and gay communities, and is located near a US army base.