Seoul: At least 153 dead after being crushed by a crowd at Halloween celebrations in South Korea

Seoul, South Korea — South Koreans were mourning and searching for relatives lost in the “hellish” chaos that claimed the lives of more than 150 people, mostly young adults, as a huge Halloween party crowd rushed into a narrow alleyway in a nightlife district in Seoul flowed.

It remained unclear what prompted the crowds to flock to the sloping alley in the Itaewon area on Saturday night, and authorities promised a thorough investigation. Witnesses said people fell on top of each other “like dominoes,” and some victims bled from their noses and mouths while receiving CPR.

Kim Mi Sung, an official at a nonprofit organization that promotes tourism in Itaewon, said she performed CPR on 10 unconscious people, mostly women, who were wearing witch outfits and other Halloween costumes. Nine of them were pronounced dead on the spot.

“I still can’t believe what happened. It was like hell,” Kim said.

As of Sunday night, officials said 153 people had been killed and 133 injured. Almost two-thirds of those killed – 97 – were women. More than 80% of the dead were in their 20s and 30s, and at least four were teenagers.

The Home and Security Ministry said the death toll could rise further as 37 of those injured were in serious condition.

Witnesses said many people seemed unaware of the disaster, which was unfolding just steps away. Some in Halloween costumes continued to sing and dance nearby, while others lay lifeless on the ground.

Ken Fallas, a Costa Rican architect who was traveling to Itaewon with expat friends, filmed a video on his smartphone showing unconscious people being carried out of the alley while others called for help. He said the loud music made things even more chaotic.

“Once we just started moving forward, there was no going back,” Fallas said. “We didn’t hear anything because the music was very loud. Well, I think that was one of the main reasons that made things so complicated.”

At least 20 of the dead are foreigners from China, Russia, Iran and other countries. An American was among the dead, the Interior Ministry said in a broadcast.

Authorities said thousands of people had called or visited a nearby city office, reporting missing relatives and asking officials to confirm whether they were among the injured or dead after the crush.

The bodies of the dead were being held at 42 hospitals in Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi province, according to the city of Seoul, which said it will direct crematoria to burn more bodies every day as part of plans to support burial processes.

An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon for the largest outdoor Halloween celebration since the pandemic began. The South Korean government had eased COVID-19 restrictions in recent months.

Though Halloween isn’t a traditional holiday in South Korea — where children rarely go trick-or-treating — it’s still a major attraction for young adults, and costume parties in bars and clubs have become hugely popular in recent years.

Seoul’s Halloween marquee is Itaewon, near the former US military headquarters in South Korea, which operated for decades before moving out of the capital in 2018. The expat-friendly district is known for its trendy bars, clubs and restaurants.

Witnesses said the streets were so congested with people and slow-moving vehicles that it was virtually impossible for rescue workers and ambulances to quickly reach the alley near the Hamilton Hotel, a major party venue in Seoul.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Sunday declared a week of national mourning and ordered flags to be flown at half-mast at government buildings and public offices. Around 100 businesses in the Hamilton Hotel area have agreed to close their shops through Monday to reduce the number of partygoers who would take to the streets leading up to Halloween Day.

During a televised address, Yoon said assisting the victims’ families, including their funeral arrangements, and treating the injured would be a top priority for his government. He also urged officials to thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident and review the safety of other major cultural and entertainment events.

“It’s really devastating. The tragedy and disaster that should not have happened happened in the heart of Seoul amidst Halloween (celebrations),” Yoon said during the speech. “I feel heavy and I cannot contain my sadness as the President who is responsible for people’s lives and safety.”

After the speech, Yoon visited the alley where the disaster happened. Local television footage showed Yoon inspecting the garbage-filled alley and was briefed by emergency officials.

World leaders expressed their condolences, including Pope Francis.

“We also pray the Risen Lord for those – especially young people – who died tragically last night in Seoul as a result of a sudden crowd,” Pope Francis said after his Sunday Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square, inviting the crowd to pray for the victims .

Among the 20 foreigners who died, four are from China; three from Russia; two from Iran; and one each from Vietnam, Austria, Norway, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka and the United States, the Interior Ministry said. The nationalities of the four other foreigners have not been confirmed.

Some local media said the foreign death toll had risen to 26. France and Thailand each said one and Japan said two of their nationals also died during the Itaewon disaster, but South Korea’s Interior Ministry could not immediately confirm the reports.

The mass flooding was South Korea’s deadliest disaster since 2014, when 304 people, mostly high school students, died in a ferry sinking.

The sinking exposed lax safety rules and regulatory oversights. It has been attributed in part to excessive and poorly fastened cargo and a crew ill-trained for emergency situations. Saturday’s deaths are likely to prompt a public scrutiny of what government officials have been doing to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.


Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Giada Zampano in Rome, and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Seoul: At least 153 dead after being crushed by a crowd at Halloween celebrations in South Korea

Laura Coffey

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