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, panic spread as an unmanageable mass of people got stuck in a narrow alley in Itaewon. Overthrown revelers 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 mob wave that killed most people in their 20s and 30s, including foreign nationals, on Saturday night. On Sunday evening, authorities put the death toll at 153 and the number of injured at 133. The Interior and Security Ministry said it expected the death toll to rise due to the number of seriously injured.
Witnesses say the nightmarish scene escalated as people performed CPR on the dying and carried limp bodies to ambulances, while dance music pulsated from screaming clubs lit in bright neon. Others tried desperately to extract those trapped under the crush of people, but failed because too many people in the crowd fell on them.
Some people have been unable to move at all for 40 minutes.
“We were so tightly packed that we couldn’t even move to call and report the situation,” said a witness, surnamed Lee. “We were strangers, but we held hands and repeatedly shouted, ‘Let’s survive!'”
Kim Mi Sung, a witness who works for a non-profit organization in Itaewon, told The Associated Press that nine of the 10 people she administered CPR eventually died. Many were bleeding from the nose and mouth. Most were women dressed as witches or wearing 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 female witness in her 20s 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 male witness, 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.
Friends and family gathered at a local government office to try to find any news of the missing.
“I haven’t heard from my child. How can I sleep when my child hasn’t come home? said an unidentified woman, according to footage from Yonhap News TV.
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, some 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.
Jee-won Jeong contributed to this story from Bangkok.