SEOUL, South Korea – A crowd of mostly young people celebrating Halloween in Seoul were trapped and crushed when the crowd poured into a narrow alley, killing at least 151 people and injuring 82 in South Korea’s worst disaster in years.
Ambulance workers and pedestrians desperately gave CPR to people lying on the streets after an accident in the capital’s nightlife district of Itaewon on Saturday night.
The dead or injured were mostly teenagers and people in their 20s, according to Choi Sung-bom, chief of the Seoul Yongsan Fire Department. According to him, among the dead were 19 foreigners whose nationality was not published. The death toll may rise, as 19 injured are in critical condition.
An estimated 100,000 people gathered in Itaewon for the country’s biggest outdoor Halloween celebration since the start of the pandemic, with strict assembly rules in place. In recent months, the South Korean government has eased restrictions due to COVID-19, and for many young people it was their first big chance to get out and play.
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.
Officials initially said 150 people had been injured as of Sunday morning, but later lowered the number.
The National Fire Agency did not immediately explain why the number was reduced, but said emergency officials would have had a better idea of casualties during rescue operations and that some of the casualties had been converted to death. It is also possible that some of the lightly wounded returned home at night and are no longer counted.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol declared national mourning on Sunday and ordered flags on government buildings and public institutions to be lowered to 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 security of other major cultural and entertainment events, including regional festivals, to ensure their safe conduct.
“It’s really devastating. A tragedy and disaster that didn’t need to happen happened in the center of Seoul during Halloween (celebrations),” 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 alleyway filled with debris and being briefed by emergency officials.
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 each other over “like dominoes” as they were pushed by others. The survivor, surnamed Kim, said they were trapped for about an hour and a half before they were rescued when some people shouted “Help me!” while others were suffocated, Seoul newspaper Hankyoreh reported.
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 who are 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. Heating revealed lax safety rules and regulatory failures; this was partly blamed on excessive and poorly secured cargo and a crew 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 emergency patients.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol issued a statement calling on officials to provide emergency aid to victims and review security at holiday venues.
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 by crowds of people rushing to board a train during the Lunar New Year holiday.
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