Seoul Halloween: Crowd crush kills at least 151 in South Korea’s Itaewon district


Seoul, South Korea
CNN

The first Halloween celebration in South Korea since the end of the Covid restrictions turned into a 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 “suspected stampede” and many people fell, killing at least 82 people.

The dead included at least 19 foreigners, including people from Iran, Norway, China and Uzbekistan, it said.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol held an emergency meeting in the early hours of Sunday, and later visited the scene to receive briefings from emergency officials.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visits the scene in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, October 30, 2022.

Addressing the nation, he called a period of national mourning “until the handling of the accident is completed.” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo then said that the mourning period will end at midnight on November 5.

“A tragedy that shouldn’t have happened happened in the middle of Seoul last night on Halloween,” 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 people flocked to the Itaewon nightclub district on Saturday night to enjoy the first Halloween celebrations in South Korea since crowd limits and face mask rules imposed by the Covid pandemic were lifted.

Witnesses said that even before the riot broke out, the party was so packed in the narrow streets that it was difficult to move.

“I saw people going to the left side and I saw that person going to the opposite side. So, the person in the middle is stuck, so they have no way to communicate, they can’t breathe,” a Witness Sung Sehyun told CNN. He stated that the space was like a “subway jam.”

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Videos posted on social media showed people performing compressions at the party while others lay on the ground while waiting for medical help.

“We saw a scene from a movie … like it happened during the war,” witness Park Jung-Hoon, 21, told Reuters. “They’re doing CPR here and there and people are rushing in because there’s nothing under control. It’s completely out of control.”

Yonhap News Agency reported that some people suffered “cardiac arrest,” citing a statement to fire authorities. Emergency officials helped at least 81 people in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood report “breathing difficulties.”

The cause of the crush is still under investigation, although officials said there was no gas leak or fire at the site when they received the first emergency call of a person “buried” in the crowd at 10:24 p.m.

Rescue teams work at the site where dozens of people were injured during the Halloween festival in Seoul, South Korea, October 29, 2022.

Police cordoned off the area and social media videos showed people wearing Halloween costumes lying in the street on stretchers as the first responders rendered aid and an ambulance queue was formed to take away the injured.

Dozens of people were transferred to nearby facilities, said Choi Jae-won, head of Yongsan Health Center. The bodies of the victims were transferred to several hospital morgues, authorities added.

The Seoul city government received missing person reports as friends and family searched for people known to be at the event who did not 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 to Seoul from all over Asia to celebrate Halloween in Itaewon, and this year’s event is seen as a welcome return to post-pandemic celebrations. Hotels and event tickets in the neighborhood are already booked in advance and large crowds are expected.

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However, before midnight, the celebrations took a dark turn, as the first call for help was made from within the crowd.

Witness Sung said he had to push his way through the crowd last night to clear the busy road. “I was lucky to pass (but an hour later), I heard people were killed. Because people were stamped… and people were stuck together.

Juliette Kayyem, a disaster management expert and national security analyst for CNN, said the city’s density — and how crowded it is in Seoul — may have played a role in the tragedy.

“People in Seoul are used to being in packed rooms, chances are they’re not scared full of packed streets,” he said. “Panic is always a factor, and there’s a danger in getting too used to being in a crowded room.”

It was difficult to pinpoint what could have caused the crush – but authorities “will be anticipating a high number … before Saturday night,” he added. “There is a responsibility on the part of the authorities to monitor the volume of the crowd in real time, so they can feel the need to evacuate people.”

More than 1,700 Emergency response forces were dispatched on Saturday night, including 517 firefighters, 1,100 police officers, and about 70 government workers.

Crowds are seen at the popular nightlife district of Itaewon in Seoul on October 30, 2022.

In a televised statement on Sunday, President Yoon said the disaster would be investigated and measures taken to ensure a similar incident does not happen again.

“We will have relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Home Affairs and Security conduct emergency inspections not only for Halloween events but also for local festivals and arrange carefully so that they are carried out in an orderly and safe manner,” Yoon said, adding that a “multi-emergency system goal” will support the injured and the families of the dead.

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“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 the victims for the sake of worried families, said Senior Presidential Secretary for Public Affairs Kim Eun-hye.

The government has declared Yongsan-gu district, where Itaewon is located, a special disaster area.

The US State Department said the US citizen was injured in the crush. “We are working with local authorities to determine whether any additional US citizens are affected and are prepared to provide consular assistance,” a State Department official said.

Around the world, leaders sent condolences to South Korea and those affected by the disaster.

Emergency services treat injured people on October 30, 2022, in Seoul, South Korea.

“Jill and I send our deepest condolences to the families who lost their loved ones in Seoul,” US President Joe Biden wrote 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 is ready to provide South Korea with “all necessary support,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan wrote on Twitter Saturday.

Emergency services treat injured people in Seoul, South Korea.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted: “All our thoughts are with those currently responding and with all South Korean citizens at this terrible time.” In a tweet written in French and Korean, President Emmanuel Macron said “France is by your side.”

Itaewon, once shunned by locals as a red light district, has transformed into one of Seoul’s top party spots. 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.

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