Seoul, South Korea CNN —
South Korea is seeking answers after Halloween celebrations in the capital Seoul turned into one of the country’s worst disasters. Authorities declared a national period of mourning as they investigate how a chaotic swarm killed at least 151 people.
Tens of thousands of costumed partygoers – mostly teenagers and young adults – had flocked to the popular nightlife district of Itaewon to enjoy South Korea’s first Halloween celebration since lifting Covid restrictions such as crowd restrictions and face mask rules.
But the celebrations descended into chaos, with photos and videos on social media showing huge crowds crammed into a narrow alley. Eyewitnesses described how the partygoers were packed so tightly together that it was difficult to move or even breathe.
Suah Cho, 23, described walking through an alley when “suddenly some people started pushing each other and people were screaming”. The screaming lasted 15 minutes, she said, adding, “It was just panic.”
“Some people would go forward and some people would go backward, and then they would just push each other,” she added. She was able to escape to a building down the alley where she could watch the disaster. She said some people told her that “people climbed the building to survive.”
Authorities are still investigating what caused the incident, but Yongsan-gu Fire Department chief Choi Seong-bum said it was a “suspected stampede” and that many people fell, injuring at least 82.
At least 19 foreigners were among the dead, including people from Iran, Norway, China and Uzbekistan, he said. A Thai was among the dead, the Thai Foreign Ministry said.
Saturday’s chaos turned to shock and sadness across the country on Sunday. The families of many of the victims have gathered at a nearby center in Itaewon, where officials are compiling the names of the dead and missing as they try to identify the bodies.
So far, more than 90 percent of those killed have been identified, Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min said in a briefing on Sunday. He added that about 10 people cannot be identified because some are under the age of 17 – too young to carry a national identity card – and others are foreign nationals.
But many remain missing, and families left behind anxiously called hospitals and visited morgues. As of 2 p.m. local time on Sunday, the Seoul authorities had received more than 3,580 missing person reports, the city government said.
One mother, Ahn Yeon-seon, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency her 19-year-old daughter went out to celebrate one of their last dates with her boyfriend before he left for mandatory military service.
A few hours after the couple left, her daughter’s boyfriend called, crying, and said she had been “under a bunch of people for over an hour and he tried to pull her out but couldn’t,” Ahn said, according to Yonhap.
Since then, Ahn has been searching hospitals for her daughter, waiting for confirmation of what happened to her. “I’ll just keep looking,” she said to Yonhap.
And although the government has launched an investigation and promised new measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again, questions are being raised as to how such a disaster could have happened in the first place.
Cho, the 23-year-old who escaped the rush, said she didn’t see any police or officers trying to control the crowd before the rush began. Even after they arrived later that night, the sense of confusion and panic lingered.
“The cop was screaming, but we couldn’t really tell it was a real cop because so many people were wearing costumes,” she said. “People literally said, ‘Are you a real cop?'”
Authorities received the first emergency calls from people “buried” in crowds at 10:24 p.m. in Seoul (9:24 a.m. ET). When the news broke, Yonhap reported that some people had suffered “cardiac arrest” while others reported “difficulty breathing.”
However, officials said no gas leaks or fires occurred at the site.
Lee Sang-min, Seoul’s interior and security minister, said Sunday that “a significant number of police and security personnel” were dispatched to another part of Seoul on Saturday to deal with the protests there.
Meanwhile, crowds in Itaewon were not unusually large, he said, so only a “normal” level of security forces were deployed there.
But as the disaster unfolded, it sparked a massive response. More than 1,700 responders were dispatched Saturday night, including 517 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and about 70 government employees.
Social media videos showed police taped off an area where people were performing compressions on other partygoers who were lying on the floor while they awaited medical attention. Others showed people in Halloween costumes lying in the streets and on stretchers while first responders provided aid and ambulances queued to take the injured away.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called an emergency meeting in the early hours of Sunday and later visited the scene to be briefed by emergency officials.
Addressing the nation, he called for a national period of mourning “until the tragedy has been dealt with.” Premier Han Duck-soo later said the mourning period would 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 have died in an unexpected accident and hope that those injured will recover quickly.”
He also said the disaster was being investigated and action taken to ensure similar incidents never happen again.
“We will have relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Security conduct emergency inspections not only for Halloween events but also local festivals and thoroughly manage them so that they are carried out in an orderly and safe manner,” Yoon said, adding that a “Multi-purpose emergency system” would support both the injured and the families of the dead.
This narrow street was the scene of a fatal incident in Seoul
Also on Sunday, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said the government will provide a fund for the families of the deceased and injured. It will “operate a funeral support team and respond comprehensively to the treatment of the injured” and provide psychological treatment to those affected, he said.
The government will also be “actively consulting with diplomatic offices to ensure there is no lack of support,” Han said.
“Our country has a history of overcoming disasters with all citizens united in one spirit,” he said, adding, “I sincerely ask all people to join us so that we can overcome grief and rise again.”
The government has designated Yongsan-gu District, where Itaewon is located, as a Special Disaster Area.
The Seoul municipal government said it will erect a joint memorial altar in Seoul Plaza and another joint memorial altar in Itaewon on Monday morning.
People are flying to Seoul from across Asia to celebrate Halloween in Itaewon, and this year’s event was seen as a welcome return to post-pandemic celebrations. Hotels and ticketed events in the neighborhood had been booked in advance and large crowds were expected.
An eyewitness, Sung Sehyun, said the room was like a “congested subway train” and he had to push through the crowd earlier in the night to get out of the busy streets.
“I was lucky to get through (but an) hour later when I heard people were being killed. Because people got trampled on… and people got herded together,” he said
Juliette Kayyem, a disaster management expert and national security analyst for CNN, said the city’s density — and how frequent Seoul’s crowds are — may have played a role in the tragedy.
“People in Seoul are used to being in crowded spaces, it’s possible they weren’t totally unnerved by the crowded streets,” she said. “Panic is always a factor, and there’s a risk of getting too used to being in crowded spaces.”
It’s hard to determine what could have triggered the rush – but authorities “would have expected high numbers… before Saturday night,” she added. “Authorities have a responsibility to monitor crowd volume in real time so they can identify the need to get people out.”
Around the world, leaders have expressed their condolences to South Korea and those affected by the disaster.
“Jill and I offer our deepest condolences to the families who lost 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 who were injured.”
The United States government stands ready to provide South Korea with “any assistance it needs,” White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan tweeted on Saturday. A US citizen was injured in the crush, authorities said.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted: “All our thoughts are with those who are currently responding and with all South Koreans at this very worrying time.” In a tweet written in French and Korean, President Emmanuel Macron said: “France is with you. ”
Once shunned by locals as a seedy red-light district, Itaewon has morphed into one of Seoul’s premier party spots. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, the area comes alive at night.
It is also home to Seoul’s thriving Muslim and gay communities and is close to a US Army base.