Tens of thousands of people reportedly gathered in Itaewon for the festivities on Saturday night. Witnesses say the streets were so densely packed with people and slow-moving vehicles that it was virtually impossible for rescue workers and ambulances to reach the driveway near the Hamilton Hotel, as the situation quickly turned into a one of the country’s worst disasters in years.
Officials say the death toll could rise as 19 of the 82 people treated for injuries are in critical condition.
The Seoul city government said more than 2,000 people called a municipal office in nearby Hannam-dong midday on Saturday, reporting that their relatives were out of contact and asking officials to confirm whether they were among the injured or dead after the crash.
Among the dead were 19 foreigners, said Choi Seong-beom, fire chief of Yongsan in Seoul. Their nationalities were not immediately revealed.
An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon for the country’s biggest outdoor Halloween festivities since the start of the pandemic and strict rules on gatherings were enforced. The South Korean government has eased COVID-19 restrictions in recent months and this was the first big chance to go out and party for many young people.
Although Halloween is not a traditional holiday in South Korea, where children rarely go for tricks, it is still a major attraction for young adults, and costume parties at bars and clubs have become extremely popular in recent years.
Itaewon, near where the former headquarters of the US military forces in South Korea operated before it left the capital in 2018, is an expat-friendly area known for its trendy bars, clubs and restaurants and it is the city’s flagship destination for Halloween.
Officials initially said 150 people were injured on Sunday morning before later reducing their toll. National Fire Agency officials did not immediately explain why the tally had been reduced, but said rescuers would have had a clearer idea of casualties as rescue operations progressed and that some of the injured would have been converted to death. It was also possible that some of those who had been slightly injured had returned home during the night and were no longer counted.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol declared a period of national mourning on Sunday and ordered flags in government buildings and public offices to be flown at half mast. In a televised address, Yoon said supporting the families of the victims, including their funeral preparations, and treating the injured would be a top priority for his government.
He also called on officials to thoroughly investigate the cause of the crash and review the security of other major cultural and entertainment events, including regional festivals, to ensure they go ahead safely. security.
“It is truly devastating. The tragedy and disaster that should not have happened took place in the heart of Seoul in the middle of Halloween (celebrations),” Yoon said during his speech. “I have the heavy heart and I can’t contain my sadness as the president responsible for people’s lives and safety.”
After the speech, Yoon visited Itaewon Alley where the disaster happened. Local TV footage showed Yoon inspecting the litter-filled driveway and being briefed by emergency officials.
It was not immediately clear what prompted the crowds to rush into the narrow, downhill alley near the Hamilton Hotel, a major party spot in Seoul. A survivor said many people fell and toppled over “like dominoes” after being pushed by others. The survivor, surnamed Kim, said he was trapped for about an hour and a half before being rescued, as some people shouted “Help me!” and others were out of breath, according to the Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper.
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 bodies near the hotel. He said rescuers were initially overwhelmed, leaving pedestrians struggling to administer CPR to injured people lying in the streets. People were crying next to the bodies of their friends, he said.
Another survivor in his 20s said he avoided being stepped on by managing to enter a bar with an open door in the alley, Yonhap news agency reported. A woman in her twenties surnamed Park told Yonhap that she and others stood along the alley while others caught in the middle of the alley had no escape.
Choi, the fire chief, said the bodies were sent to hospitals or a gymnasium, where bereaved family members could identify them. He said most of the dead and injured were in their 20s.
“Horrible news from Seoul tonight,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted. “Our hearts go out to those currently responding and to all South Koreans at this very trying time.”
Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, tweeted that the reports of the disaster were “heartbreaking” and said Washington “stands ready to provide the Republic of Korea with all the support it needs”.
South Korea’s latest deadly disaster has also hit young people the hardest. In April 2014, 304 people, mostly high school students, died in the sinking of a ferry. The sinking revealed lax safety rules and regulatory failures. It was partly blamed on excessive, loosely secured cargo and an ill-trained crew in emergency situations. Saturday’s deaths will likely draw public attention to what government officials have been doing to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.
It was also the second major disaster in a month in Asia. On October 1, Indonesian police fired tear gas at a football match, causing a crush that killed 132 people as spectators tried to flee.
More than 1,700 response personnel from across the country have been deployed to the streets to help the injured, including about 520 firefighters, 1,100 police and 70 government employees. The National Fire Agency said separately in a statement that authorities were still trying to determine the exact number of emergency patients.
It was the deadliest landslide disaster in South Korea’s history. In 2005, 11 people were killed and around 60 others were injured at a pop concert in the southern town of Sangju.
In 1960, 31 people died after being crushed down the stairs of a train station as large crowds rushed to board a train during the Lunar New Year holiday.