Seoul, South Korea
On most weekends, the narrow alleys of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district of South Korea’s capital Seoul, get busy with parties and tourists. Now it is a site One of the worst disasters in the country.
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people flocked to the area in central Seoul to celebrate Halloween – but panic erupted as the crowds swelled, with some witnesses saying it became hard to breathe and impossible to move.
As of Sunday, the death toll rose to 154 dead and dozens wounded. Authorities have now launched an urgent investigation to find out how what was supposed to be a night of celebration went so wrong, as families across the country mourn and search for their missing loved ones.
Here’s what we know so far.
Itaewon has always been a popular place to celebrate Halloween, especially as the holiday has become more popular in Asia in recent years. Some even travel to Seoul from other countries in the region for the celebrations.
But over the past two years, festivities have been muted by pandemic restrictions on crowd sizes and mask mandates.
Saturday night was the first Halloween since the country lifted these restrictions – bringing special significance to the many enthusiastic participants in Seoul, as well as international visitors including foreign residents and tourists.
Booked hotels and neighborhood events were pre-booked, and large crowds were expected.
Witnesses told CNN that there was very little — if any — crowd control before a crowd turned to death.
Videos and photos posted on social media show people crammed together, standing side by side in the narrow street.
Crowds are no stranger to that area, or to residents of Seoul, who are accustomed to subways and crowded streets in a city of nearly 10 million people.
One eyewitness said it took a while for people to realize something was wrong, as people’s panicked screams rivaled the music playing from the surrounding clubs and bars.
After the first emergency calls came at around 10:24 p.m., authorities rushed to the scene – but the sheer volume of people made it difficult to reach those who needed help.
Videos posted on social media showed people pressing other party-goers on the floor as they waited for medical help.
Thousands of people in Halloween costumes have contributed to the sense of confusion and chaos. One witness described seeing a police officer screaming during the disaster – but some revelers mistook him for another visitor.
The cause of the stampede is still being investigated, although officials said there were no gas leaks or fires at the site.
Authorities said the victims were young, mostly in their teens and early twenties. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, Itaewon is very popular with backpackers and international students.
Among the dead, 154 are at least 26 foreigners, according to authorities, with casualties from countries including the United States, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway, France, Russia, Austria, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. .
All but one of the victims have been identified, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said at a press briefing Monday. South Korea’s Ministry of Interior and Safety said the death toll included 56 men and 97 women.
Among the dead, the South Korean Ministry of Education said on Monday that six school students were among the dead, one of whom was in middle school. Three teachers also died.
The ministry said that as of 5 p.m. local time on Sunday (4 a.m. ET), the number of injured had risen to 133, of whom 37 were seriously injured.
The Seoul city government said more than 4,000 reports of missing persons had been received. This number could include multiple reports for the same person, or reports submitted on Saturday night for people who have since been found.
Police said there was no active search for the missing as they believed no one was missing from the scene. Instead, they said, missing persons reports were used to help identify those who died.
Lee Sang-min, the interior and safety minister, said on Sunday that a “large number” of police and security forces were sent to another part of Seoul on Saturday in response to the expected protests there.
Meanwhile, he said that in Itaewon, the crowd was not unusually large, so only a “normal” level of security forces were deployed there.
With the disaster on Saturday night, more than 1,700 emergency response forces were dispatched, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police officials, and about 70 government employees.
President Yoon Seok-yeol called an emergency meeting and urged officials to identify the dead as soon as possible.
But even hours later, families were still waiting to know if their loved ones were alive.
In the immediate aftermath, many people were taken to nearby facilities, while the bodies were taken to several hospital mortuaries. Families gathered at locations close to the scene where officials were collecting the names of the missing and the deceased.
Yoon promised to implement new measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again, saying the government will “make emergency inspections not only of Halloween events but also of local festivals and fully manage them so that they are conducted in an orderly and safe manner.”
The government will also provide psychological treatment and funding for the families of the deceased and the injured. Authorities declared a period of national mourning until November 5, and designated Yongsan-gu, where Itaewon is located, a special disaster area.
As a sad and shocked nation grapples with this tragedy, questions also arise about how such a disaster could have occurred in a popular area where people are known to congregate.
It’s hard to say what might have caused the crush – but authorities “were expecting large numbers … before Saturday night,” said Juliette Kayem, a disaster management expert and national security analyst for CNN.
“There is a responsibility on the part of the authorities to monitor the size of the crowd in real time, so that they can sense the need to get people out,” she added.
Suah Chu, 23, was caught in the crowd but managed to escape to a building along the alley. When asked if she had seen any officials trying to limit the number of people entering the alley, she replied, “Before the accident, not at all.”
Another eyewitness described the situation as “getting worse”, saying they could hear “people calling for other people’s help, because there weren’t enough lifeguards who could handle all that.”
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