Seoul, South Korea –
In an instant, thousands of Halloween revelers packed the narrow, bustling streets of Seoul’s most cosmopolitan district, eager to show off their capes, wizard hats and batwings.
In the next, a wave of panic spread as an unmanageable mass of people got stuck in a narrow alley in Itaewon. Overthrown revelers were trapped for 40 minutes, piled on top of each other “like dominoes” in a chaotic crush so intense that clothes were ripped off.
A stunned Seoul was just beginning Monday to muster the huge scale of the Saturday night crowd surge that killed at least 153 people, mostly people in their 20s and 30s, including foreign nationals. The Interior and Security Ministry said it expected more deaths as there were more than 130 injured, many in serious condition.
Witnesses described a nightmarish scene as people performed CPR on the dying and carried limp bodies to ambulances, while dance music pulsated from screaming clubs lit by bright neon lights. Others tried desperately to pull out those trapped at the bottom of the crowd of people, but often failed because there were too many dead on them.
“We were so tightly packed that we couldn’t even move to call and report the situation,” said one survivor, surnamed Lee. “We were strangers, but we held hands and repeatedly shouted, ‘Let’s survive!'”
Kim Mi Sung, who works for a non-profit organization in Itaewon, told The Associated Press that nine out of 10 people she administered CPR eventually died. Many were bleeding from the nose and mouth. Most were women who dressed as witches or wore other Halloween costumes; two were foreigners.
“It was like hell,” Kim said. “I still can’t believe what happened.”
In this ultra-connected, high-tech country, the anguish, terror and grief – along with many details of what happened – are most vividly manifested on social media. Users posted messages desperate for friends and relatives, as witnesses and survivors described what they had been through.
“I thought I was dying,” one woman said in posts on Twitter. “My whole body was stuck among everyone, as people laughed from a terrace and filmed us. I thought I was really going to die if I screamed. I reached out my hands to (the others) who were at the above me and I managed to get out.
An unidentified woman in her twenties cried as she described the scene to Yonhap News Agency: “It looked like people’s graves piled on top of each other. Some of them were slowly losing consciousness and others seemed already dead.”
A man, surnamed Kong, said he managed to escape to a nearby bar with his friends after the crash. He saw through the windows of the bar that people were falling on top of each other “like dominoes”, Yonhap reported.
When a 27-year-old office worker who gave only his last name, Choi, left the bar he was in during the crush, he saw dozens of police and paramedics. “It looked like a war zone,” he said.
The bodies of 10 to 15 people were lined up in front of the King Kebab restaurant on the asphalt and were covered with blue tarpaulins as he passed.
“It looked like they were asleep – eyes closed, mouths open. They looked like mannequins,” Choi said.
Friends and family gathered at a local government office to try to find any news of the missing.
A Twitter user posted a series of messages asking for information about a 17-year-old friend who traveled to Itaewon to celebrate wearing a headband that looked like cat ears.
“I lost contact with her. She has been a friend of mine for 12 years and we were like family. Please help me,” the message read.
Even after the crash, witnesses said they saw revelers not immediately make way for emergency vehicles, rescuers and police. A viral video clip on Twitter showing a crowd of young people dancing and chanting near the carnage drew several insults from South Koreans.
Ken Fallas, a Costa Rican architect who has worked in Seoul for the past eight years, was stunned by a dozen or more oblivious revelers being transported from a narrow alleyway filled with young people dressed as movie characters.
Fallas said police and rescue workers begged people to intervene if they knew how to perform CPR, as they were overwhelmed by the large number of injured people.
“I saw a lot of (young) people laughing, but I don’t think they were (really) laughing because, you know, what’s funny? said Fallas. “They were laughing because they were too scared. Because being in front of such a thing is not easy. Not everyone knows how to deal with this.
AP reporters Juwon Park in Seoul, South Korea, and Jee-won Jeong and Kiko Rosario in Bangkok contributed to this story.
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