Seoul, South Korea
Most weekends, the narrow alleyways of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district of the South Korean capital, Seoul, are busy with revelers and tourists. It is now the site of one of the country’s worst disasters.
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people flooded into the central Seoul area to celebrate Halloween, but panic broke out as the crowd swelled, with some witnesses saying it became difficult and impossible to breathe to move
As of Sunday, the death toll rose to 154, with dozens more injured. Authorities have now launched an urgent investigation into how what should have been a night of celebration went so horribly wrong, as 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, especially as the holiday became more popular in Asia in recent years. Some even fly to Seoul from other countries in the region for the festivities.
But for the past two years, celebrations have been muted by pandemic restrictions on crowd sizes and mask mandates.
Saturday night marked the first Halloween since the country lifted those restrictions, giving it special significance for many eager participants in Seoul, as well as international visitors, including foreign residents and tourists.
Hotels and ticketed events in the neighborhood were booked well in advance and a large turnout was expected.
Witnesses told CNN there was very little, if any, crowd control before the mass of people turned deadly.
Videos and photos posted on social media show people crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in the narrow street.
Crowds are not unusual for this area, or for Seoul residents, who are used to crowded streets and subways in a city of nearly 10 million people.
An eyewitness said it took people a while to realize something was wrong, with people’s panicked screams competing with the music blaring from nearby clubs and bars.
After the first emergency calls came in around 10:24 p.m., authorities rushed to the scene, but the sheer volume of people made it difficult to reach those who needed help.
Video posted on social media showed people applying compressions to other revelers lying on the ground as they waited for medical assistance.
The thousands of people in Halloween costumes contributed to the general feeling of confusion and chaos. One witness described seeing a police officer screaming during the disaster, but some partygoers 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 20s, authorities said. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, Itaewon is popular with backpackers and international students.
The 154 dead included at least 26 foreigners, authorities said, with victims from countries including the United States, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway, France, Russia, Austria, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. .
All but one of the victims have been identified, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said at a briefing on Monday. The number includes 56 men and 97 women, South Korea’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Security said.
By 5 p.m. local time Sunday (4 a.m. ET), the number of injured had risen to 133, of whom 37 were seriously injured, the ministry said.
The Seoul city government said more than 4,000 missing person reports had been received. That number could include multiple reports for the same person or reports filed Saturday night for people who have since been found.
Police said there is no active search for the missing as they believe no one disappeared from the scene; rather, they said missing person reports have been used to help identify those who died.
Lee Sang-min, Minister of Home Affairs and Security, said on Sunday that “a considerable number” of police and security forces had been sent to another part of Seoul on Saturday in response to planned protests there.
In Itaewon, meanwhile, the crowd had not been unusually large, he said, so only a “normal” level of security forces had been deployed there.
As the disaster unfolded Saturday night, more than 1,700 emergency responders were dispatched, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police officials and about 70 government workers.
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 survived.
Immediately afterward, many people were taken to nearby facilities, while the bodies were taken to multiple hospital morgues. Families gathered at locations near the scene, where officials were collecting the names of the missing and dead.
Yoon promised to implement new measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again, saying the government will “conduct emergency inspections not only for Halloween events but also for local festivals and thoroughly manage them to carried out in an orderly and safe manner”.
The government will also provide psychological treatment and a fund for the families of the dead and injured. Authorities have declared a period of national mourning until November 5 and designated Yongsan-gu district, where Itaewon is located, a special disaster zone.
As a stunned and grieving nation grapples with the tragedy, questions are also emerging about how such a disaster could have unfolded in a popular area where people are known to congregate.
It’s hard to pinpoint what might have triggered the crush, but authorities “would have expected high numbers … before Saturday night,” said Juliette Kayyem, a disaster management expert and national security analyst for CNN.
“There is a responsibility for the authorities to monitor the volume of the crowd in real time, so they can feel the need to remove people,” he added.
Suah Cho, 23, was trapped in the crowd but managed to escape to a building along the alley. Asked if he had seen any officials trying to limit the number of people entering the alley, he replied: “Before the incident, not at all.”
Another eyewitness described the situation as “getting worse and worse”, saying they could hear “people calling for help for other people, because there weren’t enough rescuers to deal with all this”.