South Korea grieving after more than 150 die in Halloween crowd surge
Death toll could grow, with 24 people in critical condition
Concerned relatives raced to hospitals in search of their loved ones Sunday as South Korea mourned the deaths of more than 150 people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who got trapped and crushed after a huge Halloween party crowd surged into a narrow alley in a nightlife district in Seoul.
Witnesses said the crowd surge Saturday night in the Itaewon district caused "a hell-like" chaos as people fell on each other "like dominoes." Some people were bleeding from their noses and mouths while being given CPR, witnesses said, while others clad in Halloween costumes continued to sing and dance nearby, possibly without knowing the severity of the situation.
"I still can't believe what has happened. It was like a hell," said Kim Mi Sung, an official at a nonprofit organization that promotes tourism in Itaewon.
Kim said she performed CPR on 10 people who were unconscious; nine of them were declared dead on the spot. Kim said the 10 were mostly women wearing witch outfits and other Halloween costumes.
The crowd surge is the country's worst disaster in years. As of Sunday evening local time, officials put the death toll at 153 and the number of injured at 133. The Ministry of the Interior and Safety said the death count could further rise as 37 of the injured people were in serious conditions.
Ninety-seven of the dead were women and 56 were men. More than 80 per cent of the dead are in their 20s and 30s, but at least four were teenagers.
An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon for the country's biggest outdoor Halloween festivities since the pandemic began and strict rules on gatherings were enforced. The South Korean government eased COVID-19 restrictions in recent months and this was the first big chance to get out and party for many young people.
Witnesses say the streets were so densely clogged with people and slow-moving vehicles that it was practically impossible for emergency workers and ambulances to reach the alley near Hamilton Hotel.
20 foreigners among the dead
South Korea's Ministry of Interior and Safety said at least 20 foreigners were among the dead, from China, Iran, Russia, the United States, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Australia, Sri Lanka, and Norway, with several people still unidentified.
The Chinese state news agency Xinhua said at least three Chinese nationals were killed. Two Japanese nationals, a woman in her 20s and another girl or woman between the age of 10 and 19 were confirmed to have died in the crush, an official at Japan's foreign ministry said.
Global Affairs Canada said Sunday that it is "aware that a Canadian was injured in the mass casualty incident."
While Halloween isn't a traditional holiday in South Korea, where children rarely go trick-or-treating, it's still a major attraction for young adults, and costume parties at bars and clubs have become hugely popular in recent years.
Itaewon, near where the former headquarters of U.S. military forces in South Korea operated before moving out of the capital in 2018, is an expat-friendly district known for its trendy bars, clubs and restaurants and it's the city's marquee Halloween destination.
National mourning period
Authorities said thousands of people have called or visited a nearby city office, reporting missing relatives and asking officials to confirm whether they were among those injured or dead.
The bodies of the dead were being kept at 42 hospitals in the capital, Seoul, and nearby Gyeonggi Province, according to Seoul City, which said it will instruct crematories to burn more bodies per day as part of plans to support funeral proceedings.
Around 100 businesses in the Hamilton Hotel area have agreed to shut down their shops through Monday to reduce the number of partygoers who would come to the streets through Halloween Day.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol declared a national mourning period on Sunday and ordered flags at government buildings and public offices to fly at half-staff. During a televised speech, Yoon said supporting the families of the victims, including their funeral preparations, and the treatment of the injured would be a top priority for his government.
He also called for officials to thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident and review the safety of other large cultural and entertainment events.
"This is really devastating. The tragedy and disaster that need not have happened took place in the heart of Seoul amid Halloween [celebrations]," Yoon said during the speech. "I feel heavy hearted and cannot contain my sadness as a president responsible for the people's lives and safety."
After the speech, Yoon visited the Itaewon alley where the disaster occurred.
It was not immediately clear what led the crowd to surge into the narrow downhill alley near the Hamilton Hotel. One survivor said many people fell and toppled one another "like dominos" after they were pushed by others. The survivor, surnamed Kim, said they were trapped for about an hour and a half before being rescued, as some people shouted "Help me!" and others were short of breath, according to the Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper.
Rows of bodies
Another survivor, Lee Chang-kyu, said he saw about five or six men push others before one or two began falling, according to the newspaper.
In an interview with news channel YTN, Hwang Min-hyeok, a visitor to Itaewon, said it was shocking to see rows of bodies near the hotel. He said emergency workers were initially overwhelmed, leaving pedestrians struggling to administer CPR to the injured lying on the streets. People wailed beside the bodies of their friends, he said.
Another survivor in his 20s said he avoided being trampled by managing to get into a bar whose door was open in the alley, Yonhap news agency reported. A woman in her 20s surnamed Park told Yonhap that she and others were standing along the side of the alley while others caught in the middle of the alley had no escape.
"Horrific news from Seoul tonight," British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted. "All our thoughts are with those currently responding and all South Koreans at this very distressing time."
Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, tweeted that reports of the disaster were "heartbreaking" and said Washington "stands ready to provide the Republic of Korea with any support it needs."
2nd major crushing disaster in a month
The last South Korean disaster this deadly also hit young people the hardest. In April 2014, 304 people, mostly high school students, died in a ferry sinking. The sinking exposed lax safety rules and regulatory failures. It was partially blamed on excessive and poorly fastened cargo and a crew poorly trained for emergency situations. Saturday's deaths will likely draw public scrutiny of what government officials have done to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.
It was also Asia's second major crushing disaster in a month. On Oct. 1, police in Indonesia fired tear gas at a soccer match, causing a crush that killed 132 people as spectators attempted to flee.
With files from Reuters and CBC News