Seoul, South Korea
South Korea’s first major Halloween party since the end of Covid restrictions turned into a tragedy on Saturday night, when at least 149 people, mostly teenagers and young adults, died as revelers swept through a narrow alley in a popular nightlife district of Seoul, officials said.
Authorities are still investigating the cause of the incident, but Yongsan-gu fire chief Choi Seong-bum said it was a “suspected stampede” and many people fell, injuring at least 76 people.
Partygoers had flocked to the Itaewon nightclub district to enjoy South Korea’s first Halloween celebration since the lifting of crowd limits and face mask rules imposed by the Covid pandemic. Witnesses said that even before the chaos broke out, revelers were so packed in the narrow streets that it was difficult to get around.
“I saw people going to the left side and I saw the 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” , Witness Sung Sehyun told CNN He said the space looked like a “blocked subway.”
Authorities received the first reports of people “buried” in the crowd around 10:24 p.m. Saturday night.
Yonhap news agency reported that some people had suffered “cardiac arrest”, attributing the statement to firefighters. Emergency officials helped at least 81 people in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood, citing “difficulty breathing”. But early suggestions of a gas leak or fire were ruled out.
Police sealed off the area and videos on social media showed people wearing Halloween costumes lying in the streets and on stretchers as first responders brought aid and lines of ambulances formed to take away the injured.
Dozens of people have been transferred to nearby facilities, said Choi Jae-won, director of the Yongsan Health Center. The bodies of the victims were transferred to several hospital morgues, authorities added.
The Seoul city government received reports of missing persons as friends and families searched for people known to be present at the event who did not return home.
As the sun rose on Sunday, police were seen scanning the sidewalk for personal effects and identification documents as they tried to determine the final number of injured and dead.
People arrive in Seoul from all over Asia to celebrate Halloween at Itaewon, and this year’s event was seen as a welcome return to post-pandemic festivities. Hotels and paid events in the area had been booked in advance and large crowds were expected.
However, before midnight the celebrations took a dark turn as the first calls for help were made from among the crowds.
Witness Sung said he had to push his way through the crowds earlier in the night to get away from the busy streets. “I was lucky to pass (but an) hour later I heard that people had been killed. Because it was the people who got dabbed. …and people stick together.
The majority of the victims were South Korean. Two foreign nationals died and 15 foreign nationals were injured, Yongsan Fire Department Chief Choi Seong-bum said.
The US State Department said a US citizen was injured in the crash. “We are working with local authorities to determine if other U.S. citizens have been affected and we stand ready to provide consular assistance,” the State Department official said.
The disaster prompted a massive response from South Korean rescue workers. More than 1,700 emergency response forces were dispatched, including 517 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and about 70 civil servants.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol sent a disaster medical assistance team to the Halloween incident and ordered authorities to ‘quickly’ identify victims for the sake of concerned families, secretary says Senior Presidential Public Relations Kim Eun-hye.
Yoon activated an emergency management headquarters under Prime Minister Han Duck-soo and ordered Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min to investigate the cause of the incident, said Kim.
The president also ordered authorities to secure emergency beds at nearby hospitals and implement rapid rescue and treatment operations, presidential spokesman Lee Jae-Myung said during a briefing.
US President Joe Biden expressed his condolences to those who lost loved ones in the disaster.
“Jill and I send our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones in Seoul,” he wrote in a statement. “We mourn with the people of the Republic of Korea and extend our best wishes for a speedy recovery to all those who were injured.”
“The Alliance between our two countries has never been more dynamic or more vital – and the bonds between our peoples are stronger than ever. The United States stands with the Republic of Korea during this tragic time,” he wrote.
The US government is ready to provide South Korea with “all the support it needs”, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
“The reports from Seoul are heartbreaking. We are thinking of all those who lost loved ones and hope for a speedy recovery for those injured. The United States stands ready to provide the Republic of Korea with any support it needs,” Sullivan wrote.