Seoul, South Korea CNN —
Most weekends, the narrow streets of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district in South Korea’s capital Seoul, are packed with partygoers and tourists. Now it is the scene of one of the country’s worst disasters.
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people flocked to the central Seoul area to celebrate Halloween – but panic broke out as crowds swelled, with some witnesses saying it was difficult to breathe and impossible to move.
By Sunday, the death toll had risen to 154, with dozens more injured. Authorities have now launched an urgent investigation to find out how what was supposed to be a celebration night went so horribly wrong, while families across the country mourn and search for missing loved ones.
Here’s what we know so far.
Itaewon has long been a popular place to celebrate Halloween as the holiday has grown in popularity in Asia in recent years. Some even fly to Seoul from other countries in the region for the celebrations.
For the past two years, however, celebrations have been muted by pandemic-related crowd restrictions and mask requirements.
Saturday night marked the first Halloween since the country lifted those restrictions – giving it special meaning for many eager attendees in Seoul, as well as international visitors, including foreign residents and tourists.
Hotels and ticketed events in the neighborhood had been booked in advance and large crowds were expected.
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.
A CNN reporter returns to Itaewon’s narrow alley a day after the Halloween disaster. See how it is
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.
An eyewitness said it took some time for people to realize something was wrong, with people’s panicked screams competing with the music from nearby clubs and bars.
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.
The thousands of people in Halloween costumes added to the widespread sense of confusion and chaos. A witness described shouting at a police officer during the disaster – but some revelers mistook him for another partygoer.
The cause of the crush is still under investigation, although officials said there were no gas leaks or fires at the scene.
The victims were young, mostly in their teens and early 20s, authorities said. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, Itaewon is popular with backpackers and international students.
Among the 154 dead were at least 26 foreigners, with victims from countries including the United States, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway, France, Russia, Austria, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, according to authorities.
All but one of the victims have been identified, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said in a briefing on Monday. The toll included 56 men and 97 women, South Korea’s Ministry of Interior and Security reported.
Survivors tell of the terror of the Halloween disaster in Seoul
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.
The Seoul municipal government said it had received more than 4,000 missing person reports. This number could contain multiple reports for the same person or reports filed on Saturday night for people who have since been found.
Police said there is no active search for those reported missing as they believe no one was missing at the scene; Rather, they said the missing persons reports were used to help identify those who died.
Home and Security Minister Lee Sang-min said Sunday that “a significant number” of police and security forces were dispatched to another part of Seoul on Saturday in response to protests expected there.
Meanwhile, crowds in Itaewon were not unusually large, he said, so only a “normal” level of security forces were deployed there.
As the disaster unfolded on Saturday night, more than 1,700 responders were dispatched, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and about 70 government employees.
President Yoon Suk 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 find out if their loved ones had survived.
Immediately afterwards, many people were transferred to nearby facilities, while the bodies were taken to several hospital morgues. Families gathered at locations near the scene of the crime, where officers compiled the names of the missing and deceased.
Yoon vowed to take new measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again, saying the government will “carry out emergency inspections not only for Halloween events but also for local festivals and will thoroughly manage them so that they go on in an orderly and safe manner.” manner be carried out”.
The government will also provide psychological treatment and a fund for the families of the deceased and injured. Authorities have declared a national mourning period until November 5 and designated Yongsan-gu District, where Itaewon is located, as a Special Disaster Area.
As a stunned and grieved nation grapples with the tragedy, questions also arise about how such a disaster might have unfolded in a popular area where people have been known to congregate.
It’s hard to determine what might have triggered the rush — but authorities “would have expected high numbers … before Saturday night,” said Juliette Kayyem, a disaster management expert and national security analyst for CNN.
“Authorities have a responsibility to monitor crowd volume in real time so they can identify the need to get people out,” she added.
Suah Cho, 23, was struck by the crowd but managed to flee to a building along the alley. When asked if she saw any officers trying to limit the number of people in the alley, she replied, “Not at all before the incident.”
Another eyewitness described the situation as “getting worse” and said he could hear “people asking for help for other people because there weren’t enough rescuers to deal with all of this.”