Seoul, South Korea
South Korea’s first major Halloween celebration since the end of Covid restrictions turned into tragedy on Saturday night when at least 151 people, mostly teenagers and young adults, died as partygoers poured down a narrow street 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 Fire Department, said it was a “suspected shock” and that many people fell, injuring at least 82 people.
The dead include at least 19 foreign nationals, including people from Iran, Norway, China and Uzbekistan, he said.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called an emergency meeting in the early hours of Sunday and later attended the scene to receive briefings from emergency officials.
Addressing the nation, he called a period of national mourning “until the accident is resolved.” Prime Minister Han Dak-soo later said the mourning period would end at midnight on November 5.
“Last Halloween night, a tragedy happened in the middle of Seoul that shouldn’t have happened,” Yoon said. “I pray 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 to enjoy South Korea’s first Halloween since crowd restrictions and face mask rules imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic were lifted.
Eyewitnesses said that even before the chaos broke out, partygoers were so tightly packed in the narrow streets that it was difficult to move.
“I saw people going to the left, and I saw a person going to the opposite side. So the person in the middle got stuck, so they had no way to communicate, they couldn’t breathe,” eyewitness Sung Se-hyun told CNN. He said the room was like “stuck in the subway”.
A video posted on social media shows people applying compressions to other partygoers who are lying on the ground while waiting for medical help.
“We saw a scene from a movie… like things that happen during a war,” witness Park Jung-hoon, 21, told Reuters. “Here and there they were doing CPR and people were rushing in because nothing was under control. It was completely out of control. ”
Yonhap news agency reported that some people had suffered “cardiac arrest”, attributing the statement to fire authorities. Emergency workers treated at least 81 people in the Itaewon neighborhood of Seoul who reported “difficulty breathing.”
The cause of the collision remains under investigation, although officials said there were no gas leaks or fires at the scene when they received the first emergency calls at 10:24 p.m. about people being “buried” in the crowd.
Police cordoned off the area and people were seen on social media videos wearing Halloween costumes, lying in the streets and on stretchers as first responders attended and lines of ambulances formed to take away the injured.
Dozens of people were transferred to nearby facilities, said Choi Jeewon, head of the Yongsan Health Center. The bodies of the victims were moved to several hospital morgues, authorities added.
Seoul city government received missing person reports as friends and families searched for people known to have been at an event and not come home.
On Sunday, police scanned the sidewalk for personal belongings and identification documents as they tried to determine the final number of injured and dead.
People fly to Seoul from all over Asia to celebrate Halloween in Itaewon, and this year’s event was seen as a welcome return to the holiday after the pandemic. Hotels and ticketed events in the area were booked well in advance and a large crowd was expected.
Before midnight, however, the celebrations took a dark turn as the first calls for help rang out from inside the crowd.
Witness Sung said he had to push through the crowd earlier in the night to get away from the busy streets. “I was lucky to get through (but after an hour) I heard that people were being killed. Because people were being sealed… and people were being squeezed together.
Disaster management expert and CNN national security analyst Juliet Keim said the density of the city and how often crowds are in Seoul may have played a role in the tragedy.
“People in Seoul are used to being in crowded places, maybe they weren’t completely disturbed by the crowded streets,” she said. “Panic is always a factor and the risk is that you are too used to being in crowded places.”
It is difficult to determine exactly what may have caused the crush, but authorities “would have expected a large number … before Saturday night,” she added. “The authorities have a duty to monitor the crowd in real time so that 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 employees, was dispatched Saturday evening.
In a televised statement on Sunday, President Yon said the disaster would be investigated and measures would be put in place to ensure similar incidents never happen again.
“We have relevant ministries, such as the Ministry of Home Affairs and Security, to conduct emergency inspections not only for Halloween events but also for local festivals and carefully manage them so that they are carried out in an orderly and safe manner,” Yoon said, adding that “a multi-functional emergency system ” would provide support to both 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 told authorities to “quickly” identify the victims because of the worried families, said Kim Eun-hye, senior presidential secretary for public affairs.
The Yongsan-gu district, where Itaewon is located, has been declared a special disaster zone by the government.
The US State Department announced that a US citizen was injured in the collision. “We are working with local authorities to determine if additional US citizens have been affected and are prepared to provide consular assistance,” a State Department official said.
Leaders around the world sent 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 said in a statement. “We mourn with the people of the Republic of Korea and send our best wishes for a speedy recovery to all those injured.”
The United States government stands ready to provide South Korea with “any support it needs,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted Saturday.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted: “All our thoughts are with those currently responding and all South Koreans at this very troubling 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 become one of Seoul’s most popular party spots. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, the neighborhood comes alive at night.
It is also home to Seoul’s thriving Muslim and gay communities and is close to a US Army base.