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South Korea in shock and grief after 151 killed in Halloween stampede

Seoul, South Korea — Worried relatives rushed to hospitals in search of their loved ones on Sunday as South Korea mourned them at least 151 people diedmostly in their teens and 20s, who were trapped and crushed after a huge Halloween crowd poured into a narrow alleyway in Seoul’s nightlife district.

Witnesses say a crowd in the Itaewon area on Saturday night caused “hell-like” chaos as people attacked each other “like dominoes”. Witnesses said some people were bleeding from the nose and mouth during CPR, while others, dressed in Halloween costumes, continued to sing and dance nearby, perhaps unaware of the seriousness of the situation.

“I still can’t believe what happened. It was like hell,” said Kim Mi-sung, a representative of a non-profit organization that promotes tourism in Itaewon.

Kim said she performed CPR on 10 people who were unconscious, and nine of them were pronounced dead at the scene. Kim said the 10 were mostly women in witches and other Halloween costumes.

The crowd surge is the country’s worst disaster in recent years. Tens of thousands of people are believed to have gathered in Itaewon to celebrate Halloween. Witnesses said the streets were so packed with people and slow-moving vehicles that it was almost impossible for EMS and Ambulance personnel to quickly reach the lane near the Hamilton Hotel.

There were fears that the death toll could rise, as 24 of the 104 injured were in critical condition, according to Seoul’s disaster relief headquarters.

City officials said more than 2,600 people had called or visited a nearby city office as of Saturday afternoon, reporting missing relatives and asking officials to confirm whether they were among those injured or killed in the wreck.

Reaction after the stampede at the Halloween festival in Seoul
A man pays his respects near the site of a stampede during Halloween celebrations in Seoul, South Korea, on October 30, 2022.


Among the dead were 19 foreigners, said Choi Sung-beom, chief of the Seoul Yongsan Fire Department, whose jurisdiction includes Itaewon. South Korea’s foreign ministry did not confirm the nationalities of the victims, but said it had alerted the embassies of those countries in Seoul. China’s state news agency Xinhua reported that at least three Chinese citizens were killed.

At least one US citizen was injured in the stampede, the State Department told CBS News late Saturday.

The bodies of the dead were stored in 42 hospitals in Seoul and neighboring Gyeonggi province, according to the city of Seoul, which said it would instruct crematoria to burn more bodies per day as part of plans to support funeral procedures.

About 100 businesses in the Hamilton Hotel area have agreed to close their shops until Monday to reduce the number of revelers who will hit the streets over Halloween.

An estimated 100,000 people gathered in Itaewon for the country’s largest outdoor Halloween celebration since the start of the pandemic. The South Korean government has eased its COVID-19 restrictions in recent months.

Although Halloween is not a traditional holiday in South Korea, where children rarely go out for treats, it is still a major attraction for young people, and costume parties in bars and clubs have become very popular in recent years.

Ithaewon, near the site of the former headquarters of the US military in South Korea until it moved from the capital in 2018, is an expat-friendly area known for its trendy bars, clubs and restaurants, and is the city’s main attraction on Halloween.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on Sunday declared a week of national mourning and ordered flags on government buildings and public institutions to be flown at half-staff. In a televised address, Yoon said support for the families of the victims, including funeral arrangements, and treatment for the injured would be his government’s top priority.

He also urged officials to thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident and review the safety of other major cultural and entertainment events to ensure their safe conduct.

“It’s really devastating. A tragedy and disaster that should not have happened happened in the center of Seoul during the Halloween (celebration),” Yoon said during the speech. “My heart is heavy and I cannot contain my sadness as a president responsible for the lives and safety of the people.”

After the speech, Yoon visited Ithaewon Alley, where the disaster occurred. Local television showed Yoon inspecting an alley filled with debris and being briefed by emergency workers.

It was not immediately clear what caused the crowd to pour into the narrow slipway outside the Hamilton Hotel, Seoul’s main party spot. One survivor said many people fell and knocked over each other “like dominoes” after being pushed by others. The survivor, surnamed Kim, said they were trapped for about an hour and a half before being rescued when some people shouted “Help me!” while others were suffocated, Seoul newspaper Hankyoreh reported.

More than 150 people died in a stampede in Seoul during the Halloween celebration
Police officers stand guard behind barriers in the Itaewon district of Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022.

SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Another survivor, Lee Chang-kyu, said he saw about five or six men pushing others before one or two began to fall, the newspaper reported.

In an interview with news channel YTN, Hwang Min-hyuk, a visitor to Ithaewon, said it was shocking to see the rows of bodies outside the hotel. He said emergency responders were initially overwhelmed, leaving pedestrians struggling to administer CPR to victims lying in the streets. People were clamoring over the bodies of their friends, he said.

Another man in his 20s said he escaped being trampled by managing to enter a bar whose door was open in an alley, Yonhap news agency reported. A woman in her 20s, surnamed Park, told Yonhap that she and others were standing along the alley, and there was no way out for others trapped in the middle of the alley.

Choi, the fire chief, said the bodies were sent to hospitals or gymnasiums where family members could identify them. According to him, most of the dead and injured were in their 20s.

“Terrible news from Seoul tonight,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted. “All our thoughts are with those now in charge and with all South Koreans at this very troubling time.”

Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, tweeted that the reports of the disaster were “heartbreaking” and said Washington was “ready to provide any necessary support to the Republic of Korea”.

The latest such deadly disaster in South Korea also hit young people the hardest. In April 2014, 304 people, mostly high school students, died as a result of the sinking of the ferry. The sinking exposed lax safety rules and regulatory failures. This was partly blamed on excessive and poorly secured cargo and on crews poorly prepared for emergencies. Saturday’s death is likely to draw public attention to what government officials have done to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.

It was also the second major disaster in Asia in a month. On October 1, police in Indonesia fired tear gas at a soccer match, killing 132 people as spectators tried to flee.

More than 1,700 first responders from across the country were deployed to the streets to help the injured, including about 520 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and 70 civil servants. A separate statement from the National Fire Agency said officials were still trying to determine the exact number of patients who received emergency treatment.

It was the deadliest disaster in South Korea’s history. In 2005, 11 people were killed and about 60 injured at a pop concert in the southern city of Sanju.

In 1960, 31 people died after being crushed on the station stairs as crowds of people rushed to board a train during the Lunar New Year holiday.


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