Crushing the crowd kills at least 151 during the Halloween festivities in Seoul

(CNN) – South Korea’s first big Halloween celebration since the end of the Covid restrictions turned into a tragedy on Saturday night when at least 151 people, mostly teenagers and young adults, died as partygoers made their way down a narrow alley in a popular nightlife district in Seoul, officials said.

Authorities are still investigating the cause of the incident, but Choi Seong-bum, chief of the Yongsan-gu fire department, said it was “supposed panic” and that many people fell, injuring at least 82 people.

There were at least 19 foreigners among the dead, including people from Iran, Norway, China and Uzbekistan, he said.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called an emergency meeting in the early hours of Sunday and later visited the scene to receive information from emergency officials.

Addressing the people, he called the period of national mourning “until the end of the accident proceedings.” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo later said the mourning period would end at midnight on November 5.

“A tragedy that shouldn’t have happened happened in central Seoul last Halloween night,” said Yoon. “I pray for those who died in an unexpected accident and hope that the injured will recover quickly.”

Tens of thousands of revelers flocked to the Itaewon nightlife district on Saturday night to enjoy South Korea’s first Halloween celebration since the crowd restrictions and face mask rules imposed by the Covid pandemic were lifted.

Witnesses said that even before the chaos erupted, the partygoers were packed so tightly in the narrow streets that it was difficult to navigate through them.

“I saw people going to the left side and I saw a person going to the other side. So the person inside got stuck, so they couldn’t communicate, couldn’t breathe, ”Witness Sung Sehyun told CNN. He said the space is like a “congested subway”.

A video posted on social media showed people performing oppression on other party people lying on the ground while they waited for medical attention.

“We saw a scene from the movie … like things happen in a war,” 21-year-old witness Park Jung-Hoon told Reuters. “They were doing CPR here and there, and people were running in because nothing was being controlled. It was totally out of control. “

The Yonhap news agency reported that some people had suffered a “cardiac arrest”, attributing the statement to fire authorities. Emergency services officials helped at least 81 people in Seoul’s Itaewon district by reporting “breathing difficulties”.

The cause of the crush is still under investigation, although officials said there were no gas leaks or fires at the scene when they received the first emergency calls at 10:24 PM about people “buried” in the crowd

Police closed the area and videos on social media showed people in Halloween costumes lying in the streets and on stretchers as rescuers assisted and queues for ambulances lined up to pick up the injured.

Dozens of people have been transferred to nearby facilities, said Choi Jae-won, head of the Yongsan Health Center. The bodies of the victims were transferred to many hospital mortuaries, the authorities added.

Seoul city officials received reports of missing persons as friends and families searched for people known to have attended a party who had not returned home.

On Sunday, policemen scanned the pavement for personal belongings and identification items, trying to determine the final number of wounded and killed.

Foreigners among the dead

People flock to Seoul from all over Asia to celebrate Halloween in Itaewon, and this year’s event was seen as a welcome return of the celebration after the pandemic. Hotels and tickets for events in the area were booked well in advance and large crowds were expected.

Before midnight, however, the celebrations took a dark turn as the first cries for help were heard from the crowd.

Witness Sung said earlier in the night he had to push his way through the crowd to get out of the busy streets. “I was lucky to be able to walk (but) an hour later, I heard people were killed. Because the people got pushed… and the people got stuck ”.

Juliette Kayyem, CNN’s disaster management expert and national security analyst, said city congestion – and how common the crowds are in Seoul – may have played a role in the tragedy.

“People in Seoul are used to being in crowded spaces, it is possible they were not fully concerned about the crowded streets,” she said. “Panic is always a factor and there is a danger of getting too used to being in crowded spaces.”

It is difficult to pinpoint what might have caused the noise – but authorities “would have anticipated high numbers … by Saturday night,” she added. “It is the responsibility of the authorities to monitor crowd levels in real time so that they can sense the need to lead people out.”

On Saturday evening, more than 1,700 emergency response forces were deployed, including 517 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and around 70 government employees.

In a televised statement on Sunday, President Yoon said the crash would be investigated and measures would be put in place to ensure that such incidents would never happen again.

“We will have appropriate ministries, such as the Ministry of the Interior and Security, to conduct and carefully manage emergency inspections of not only Halloween events, but also local festivals, so that they are conducted in an orderly and safe manner,” said Yoon, adding, that a “multifunctional rescue system” would support both the injured and the families of the deceased.

“I pray for those who died in an unexpected accident and hope the injured recover quickly,” said Yoon.

Yoon also ordered authorities to “swiftly” identify victims because of troubled families, said Kim Eun-hye’s senior public relations secretary.

The government has declared Yongsan-gu, which includes Itaewon, a special disaster area.

The US State Department said the US citizen was injured in the crush. “We are working with local authorities to determine if additional US citizens have been affected and we are ready to provide consular assistance,” said a State Department official.

Around the world, leaders sent their condolences to South Korea and those affected by the disaster.

“Jill and I send our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones in Seoul,” US President Joe Biden wrote in a statement. “We despair with the people of the Republic of Korea and send our best wishes for a speedy recovery to all those who have been injured.”

The US government is ready to give South Korea “whatever support it needs,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted on Saturday.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted: “All our thoughts are with those who are currently responding and with all South Koreans at this very disturbing time.” In a tweet in French and Korean, President Emmanuel Macron said: “France is on your side.”

Once dismissed by locals as a dingy red light district, Itaewon has turned into one of Seoul’s best party venues. 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 the US Army base.

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