November 26, 2022

CNN —

South Korean authorities are investigating the mass stampede that killed at least 154 party-goers in Seoul as the shattered nation tries to come to terms with one of its worst disasters.

The country has entered a week-long mourning period as officials try to understand how the devastating crowds came about.

At least 26 foreigners were among the dead, including two US citizens. More than a dozen embassies around the world have confirmed casualties from their country.

What caused Saturday’s surge is unclear, but witnesses say partygoers in the capital’s Itaewon nightlife district were crammed tightly into narrow streets as people enjoyed the first Halloween weekend since Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.

Almost all victims – at least 150 – have been identified; The police told CNN. The toll included 56 men and 97 women, South Korea’s Ministry of Interior and Security reported.

The South Korean Ministry of Education announced on Monday that six students were among the dead, including one in middle school. Three teachers also died.

As of 5 p.m. local time (4 a.m. ET) Sunday, the number of people injured had risen to 133, of whom 37 were seriously injured, the ministry said.

“There were rows and rows of people with tarps covering them on the street,” Emily Farmer, a 27-year-old Seoul English teacher who was traveling through Itaewon, told CNN.

Farmer and her friends were “overwhelmed” by the crowds on the street and decided to go into a bar. Shortly thereafter, rumors spread that someone had died and that the guests were not allowed to leave the house. Farmer said she received an emergency message from the government alerting her to “a dangerous situation in the area” and was later allowed to leave the bar when she discovered the extent of the tragedy.

“It was awful,” she said. “Not all died immediately.” Groups of people were crying, she added. Many victims received CPR and were forced to remove their costumes so on-site paramedics could revive them. “They were still pulling people[out]because it was so crowded,” she added.

Another eyewitness, Sung Sehyun, told CNN that the streetscape on Saturday night looked like a “congested subway train,” with Halloween partygoers packed so tight it was difficult to move.

Crowds in South Korea have the country reeling as the death toll climbs to 154

Suah Cho added that people started shoving and shoving, and there was a lot of shouting. She eventually managed to take a detour and get to safety, but had seen people climbing buildings to survive. She added that the costumes people were wearing added to the confusion; “There was also a cop who was screaming but we couldn’t really tell if it was a real cop because so many people were wearing costumes.”

Witnesses told CNN that there was very little – if any – crowd control before the mass of people became deadly.

Videos and photos posted to social media show people crammed together, shoulder to shoulder in the narrow street.

Flowers were laid at the scene of the accident.

Crowds are not uncommon for this area, or for Seoulites who are used to crowded subways and streets in a city of nearly 10 million people.

After the first 911 calls came in around 10:24 p.m., authorities rushed to the scene – but the sheer crowd made it difficult to reach those who needed help. The video posted to social media showed people performing compressions on fellow partygoers who were lying on the floor while they awaited medical attention.

A number of countries including the US, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway and France have confirmed their nationals were among the victims.

A University of Kentucky nursing student is among the dead, according to a statement by university president Eli Capilouto. Anne Gieske, a junior from northern Kentucky, is studying abroad in Seoul this semester, Capilouto said.

Three South Korean military personnel were also among those killed, a Korean Defense Ministry official told CNN.

The South Korean government has set a national mourning period until the end of November 5, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said in a briefing.

During the mourning period, all public institutions and diplomatic offices will fly flags at half-staff, Han said, adding that all non-urgent events would be postponed.

Officials and employees of public institutions will wear ribbons during the mourning period to express their condolences, Han said.