Seoul: At least 153 dead, after being crushed in crowd surge at Halloween festivities in South Korea

Seoul, South Korea — Concerned relatives raced to hospitals looking for loved ones on Sunday as South Korea mourned the deaths of more than 150 people, most in their 20s and 30s, who were trapped and crushed after a huge Halloween party crowd narrowed Streamed alley in a nightlife district in Seoul.

Witnesses said Saturday night’s mass stampede in the Itaewon area caused “hellish” chaos as people fell “like dominoes.” Some people bled from their noses and mouths while receiving CPR, witnesses said, while others in Halloween costumes continued to sing and dance nearby, possibly unaware of the seriousness of the situation.

“I still can’t believe what happened. It was like hell,” said Kim Mi Sung, an official with a nonprofit organization that promotes tourism in Itaewon.

Kim said she performed CPR on 10 unconscious people and nine of them were pronounced dead on the spot. Kim said the 10 were mostly women wearing witch outfits and other Halloween costumes.

The mass stampede is the country’s worst disaster in years. As of Sunday night, officials put the death toll at 153 and the number of injured at 133. The Ministry of Home Affairs and Security said the death toll could rise further as 37 of those injured were in serious condition.

97 of the dead were women and 56 men. More than 80% of the dead are in their 20s and 30s, but at least four were teenagers.

At least 20 of the dead are foreigners from China, Russia, Iran and other countries. An American was among the dead, the Interior Ministry said in a broadcast.

An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon for the largest outdoor Halloween celebration since the pandemic began. The South Korean government had eased COVID-19 restrictions in recent months.

Witnesses said the streets were so congested with people and slow-moving vehicles that it was virtually impossible for rescue workers and ambulances to quickly reach the alleyway near the Hamilton Hotel.

Authorities said thousands of people had called or visited a nearby city office, reporting missing relatives and asking officials to confirm whether they were among the injured or dead after the crush.

The bodies of the dead were being held at 42 hospitals in Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi province, according to the city of Seoul, which said it will direct crematoria to burn more bodies every day as part of plans to support burial processes.

Around 100 businesses in the Hamilton Hotel area have agreed to close their shops through Monday to reduce the number of partygoers who would take to the streets leading up to Halloween Day.

Though Halloween isn’t a traditional holiday in South Korea — where children rarely go trick-or-treating — it’s still a major attraction for young adults, and costume parties in bars and clubs have become hugely popular in recent years.

Itaewon, near the former US Forces South Korea headquarters that operated for decades before withdrawing from the capital in 2018, is an expat-friendly neighborhood known for its trendy bars, clubs and restaurants. It’s the city’s Halloween marquee.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Sunday declared a week of national mourning and ordered flags to be flown at half-mast at government buildings and public offices. During a televised address, Yoon said assisting the victims’ families, including their funeral arrangements, and treating the injured would be a top priority for his government.

He also urged officials to thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident and to review the safety of other major cultural and entertainment events to ensure they proceed safely.

“It’s really devastating. The tragedy and disaster that should not have happened happened in the heart of Seoul amidst Halloween (celebrations),” Yoon said during the speech. “I feel heavy and I cannot contain my sadness as the President who is responsible for people’s lives and safety.”

After the speech, Yoon visited Itaewon Alley where the disaster happened. Local television footage showed Yoon inspecting the garbage-filled alley and was briefed by emergency officials.

It was not immediately clear what prompted the crowds to pour into the narrow downhill alley. One survivor said many people fell and toppled “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!” and others were short of breath, according to Seoul-based newspaper Hankyoreh.

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

In an interview with YTN news channel, Hwang Min-hyeok, a visitor to Itaewon, said it was shocking to see rows of dead bodies near the hotel. He said rescue workers were initially overwhelmed, leaving pedestrians struggling to revive injured people lying on the street. People wept beside the bodies of their friends, he said.

A man in his 20s said he avoided being trampled by managing to get into a bar with the door open in the alley, Yonhap news agency reported. A woman in her 20s, surnamed Park, told Yonhap that she and others stood at the edge of the alley while others trapped in the middle of the alley had no escape.

Choi Seong-beom, chief of Seoul’s Yongsan Fire Department, said the bodies were sent to hospitals or a gym where grieving family members could identify them.

World leaders expressed their condolences, including Pope Francis.

“We also pray the Risen Lord for those – especially young people – who died tragically last night in Seoul as a result of a sudden crowd,” Pope Francis said after his Sunday Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square, inviting the crowd to pray for the victims .

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted: “All our thoughts are with those who are currently responding and with all South Koreans at this very worrying time.” Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor, tweeted that the reports of the disaster were “heartbreaking.” and said Washington is “ready to provide the Republic of Korea with any assistance it may need.”

Among the 20 foreign dead are four from China; three from Russia; two from Iran; and one each from Vietnam, Austria, Norway, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka and the United States. The Interior Ministry said it had no information on the nationalities of the other four foreigners.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry said two of its nationals were among the dead, while France’s Foreign Ministry said a French national also died during the Itaewon tragedy.

The latest South Korean disaster of this deadly nature also hit young people hardest. In April 2014, 304 people, mostly high school students, died when a ferry went down. The sinking exposed lax safety rules and regulatory oversights. It has been attributed in part to excessive and poorly fastened cargo and a crew ill-trained for emergency situations.

Saturday’s deaths are likely to prompt a public scrutiny of what government officials have been doing to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.

This was the deadliest devastating disaster in South Korea’s history. In 2005, eleven people were killed and around 60 others injured at a pop concert in the southern Chinese city of Sangju.

In 1960, 31 people died after being crushed on the steps of a train station when a large crowd boarded a train during the Lunar New Year holiday.

It was also Asia’s second major devastating disaster in a month. On October 1, police in Indonesia fired tear gas at a soccer game, leading to a scramble that killed 132 people as spectators tried to flee.

More than 1,700 responders from across the country were deployed to help the wounded, including about 520 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and 70 government employees. The National Fire Agency said separately in a statement that officials were still trying to determine the exact number of emergency patients.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Seoul: At least 153 dead, after being crushed in crowd surge at Halloween festivities in South Korea

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