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South Korea checks Halloween crowd surge as nation mourns | Main stories

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean police were investigating Monday what sparked a mob that more than 150 people died including 26 foreigners during Halloween celebrations in Seoul in the country’s worst disaster in years, as President Yoon Suk-yeol and tens of thousands of others commemorated the dead at special mourning sites.

Saturday’s disaster was centered on a sloping narrow alley in Seoul’s Itaewon district, popular nightlife areawith witnesses and survivors reminiscent of “infernal” chaos with people falling on top of each other like dominoes. They said the entire Itaewon area was jammed with slow-moving cars and revelers dressed in Halloween costumes, preventing rescuers and ambulances from reaching the crowded lanes in time.

Police said they had formed a 475-strong task force to investigate the hit-and-run.

Officers have obtained footage from around 50 security cameras in the area and are also analyzing footage posted on social media. So far, they have interviewed more than 40 witnesses and survivors, senior police officer Nam Goo-jun told reporters on Monday.

Other police said they were trying to figure out when and where the mob surge started and how it developed. They said a team of police and government forensic experts searched the Itaewon area on Monday.

“The government is thoroughly investigating the cause of the incident and will do its best to make the necessary system improvements to prevent a similar accident from happening again,” Prime Minister Han Dak-soo said at the start of a cabinet meeting on the disaster.

Renowned for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, the Itaewon area is the country’s most popular destination for Halloween-themed events and parties, which have become increasingly popular among young South Koreans in recent years. An estimated 100,000 people gathered there for the nation’s largest Halloween celebration since the pandemic began.

Among the dead are 26 foreign citizens.

One of the Americans killed was Anne Giske, a University of Kentucky nursing student from northern Kentucky who was studying abroad in South Korea, the university said in a statement. The other was 20-year-old Stephen Blazey, his father Steve Blazey tweeted after earlier seeking information about his son.

Blessi appealed for information after not hearing from his son, asking: “If anyone has any news, please share.” After a flood of replies offering help and support, he tweeted: “We have just received confirmation that our son has passed away,” followed by “Thank you for the outpouring of love. We need time to grieve.”

Australian victim Grace Raiched, a film production assistant in Sydney, was described by her family as “the life of our party”. Her family said in a statement that “we miss our beautiful angel Grace, who lit up the room with her contagious smile.”

Among the dead Japanese was Mei Tomikawa, who was studying Korean in Seoul, Japanese media reported. Her father, Ayumu Tomikawa, told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK that his daughter “liked South Korea very much and was enjoying life there.”

Halloween in Itaewon has no official organizers. South Korean police said on Monday that they have no special procedures for dealing with incidents such as crowd jumping during an event that has no organizers.

Police said they deployed 137 officers to maintain order during Halloween celebrations on Saturday, far more than the 34-90 officers deployed in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before the pandemic.

Citing the figures, police dismissed speculation that the area’s police station was understaffed as it provided extra security for Yoon, who had earlier moved the presidential office to a location near Itaewon, as “untrue.” They said that police protection for presidents has long been handled by two special police units that have nothing to do with the Yongsan Police Station, under whose jurisdiction Itaewon falls.

Some witnesses said the stampede was caused by people at the top of the descent pushing others at the bottom. Local media also questioned the apparent lack of security preparations for the large crowds expected to gather in Itaewon.

When asked about such possibilities, a police officer told Nam that the investigation would look into all possible causes of the crash.

As of Monday morning, the government said it had identified 153 of the 154 bodies and had notified relatives of their identification. Almost two-thirds of the dead — 98 — were women. It is reported that another 149 people remain injured. The death toll could rise further as officials said 33 of the injured were in critical condition.

More than 80% of the dead were aged 20-30, 11 were teenagers, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported.

Among the foreign victims, five were from Iran, four from China, four from Russia, two from the US, two from Japan and one each from Australia, Norway, France, Austria, Vietnam, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Sri Lanka. according to the ministry.

As the identification of the dead neared completion, the families of the dead were expected to begin burying their loved ones. Officials said the government would provide necessary support for the funeral arrangements.

President Yun on Sunday declared a week of national mourning and ordered flags on government buildings and government offices to be flown at half-staff.

The government opened special memorial sites Monday in Seoul and other major cities. Tens of thousands of people, including Yun and other top officials, visited the sites, laid white flowers and bowed deeply. Many people also placed chrysanthemums, bottles of Korean soju liquor, candles and snacks near the Itaewon subway station and posted many condolences.

After the disaster, many hotels, department stores, amusement parks and other businesses canceled Halloween-themed events.

The crowd surge was South Korea’s deadliest disaster since 2014, when 304 people, mostly high school students, died in a ferry crash.

The diving is subject to lax safety regulations and regulatory failures. Part of the reason for this was excessive and poorly secured cargo, as well as poorly prepared crew for emergency situations. Saturday’s death is likely to draw public attention to what government officials have done to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.


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