President Yoon Suk-yeol declares state of national mourning after fatal surge in Itaewon nightlife quarter of South Korean capital
South Korea’s president has pledged a full investigation after at least 153 people were crushed to death during Halloween celebrations when crowds surged through a narrow alleyway in a packed nightlife area of Seoul, plunging the nation into mourning.
Yoon Suk-yeol designated Seoul’s popular Itaewon district a disaster zone after the deadliest crowd crush in South Korean history, describing it as “a tragedy … that should not have happened”.
An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon, long a symbol of the capital’s freewheeling nightlife, on Saturday as the end of social distancing, mask mandates and other anti-Covid rules allowed the first Halloween party in three years.
Revellers reported chaotic scenes due to the sheer volume of people on the streets well before the deadly crush occurred at about 10.20pm, when a large crowd, many wearing Halloween costumes, surged into a steep, narrow alleyway off the main thoroughfare near the Hamilton Hotel.
On Sunday, families and friends were desperately seeking word of loved ones at community centres turned into facilities for missing people, while shocked parents collected the bodies of the overwhelmingly young victims from the city’s morgues.
“This news came like a bolt from the blue sky,” said one father who burst into tears as he identified his daughter’s body. At least 90% of the victims had been identified, the interior ministry said, with delays mostly affecting foreign nationals.
“I still can’t believe what has happened. It was like a hell,” said Kim Mi Sung, who works for a nonprofit organisation that promotes tourism in Itaewon. She had performed CPR on 10 people who were unconscious, nine of whom were later declared dead, she said.
Choi Sung-beom, the head of the Yongsan fire station, told reporters at the scene that 82 people had been injured, 19 of them seriously. The deaths included 22 foreigners, he said. Emergency workers warned the death toll could rise further.
President Yoon declared a state of official national mourning during a live address to the nation. “As president, who is responsible for the people’s lives and safety, my heart is heavy and I struggle to cope with my grief,” he said.
The president pledged that authorities would “thoroughly investigate the cause of the incident and make fundamental improvements to ensure the same accident does not occur again in the future”.
Witnesses reported seeing crowds surging in different directions and people losing their footing on the slope, causing a domino effect. Videos posted online showed people trying to pull others out from the crush by their arms.
A witness posted on Twitter: “People kept pushing down into a downhill club alley, resulting in other people screaming and falling down like dominos. I thought I would be crushed to death, too, as people kept pushing without realising there were people falling down at the start of the stampede.”
Lee Beom-suk, a doctor who administered first aid to the victims, told local TV he had witnessed scenes of tragedy and chaos. “So many victims’ faces were pale,” he said. “I could not catch their pulse or breath. There was blood coming from their noses. When I tried CPR, I also pumped blood out of their mouths.”
Most victims were in their teens and 20s, with 97 identified as female and 54 as male. At least 20 foreigners were among the dead, the foreign ministry said, including citizens of the US, Uzbekistan, Austria, Norway, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Iran and Sri Lanka. One French national, three Russians and four Chinese people also died, their governments said.
Foreign leaders sent their condolences, with the US president, Joe Biden, saying the US “stands with” South Korea after the tragedy and Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, saying he was “hugely shocked and deeply saddened” by the disaster.
The British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, tweeted that the nation’s thoughts were “with those currently responding and all South Koreans at this very distressing time”, while Pope Francis offered a prayer for those, “especially young people, who died overnight in Seoul due to the tragic consequences of a sudden stampede”.
Seoul’s mayor, Oh Se-hoon, who rushed back from a work trip in Europe, said a memorial altar would be set up at Seoul Plaza from Monday so the public could pay their respects to the victims. “Most of the casualties are young people like our sons and daughters, which makes it even sadder,” he said at the scene.
As questions began to emerge over security, the interior minister, Lee Sang-min, said police had been occupied on the other side of town. “A considerable number had been deployed at Gwanghwamun where a large crowd was expected for a protest,” he said, and police “had also not expected” such a large Halloween crowd.
Flags at government agencies and other public buildings were lowered to half-mast across South Korea on Sunday. Numerous Halloween parades, concerts and other events were cancelled and shops around the country took down Halloween displays and decorations.
More than 400 emergency workers and 140 vehicles from around the nation, including all available personnel in Seoul, were deployed to the streets of Itaewon on Saturday night to treat the injured.
TV footage and photos from the scene showed ambulance vehicles queued up in streets amid a heavy police presence and emergency workers moving the injured on stretchers. Emergency workers and passers-by were also seen performing CPR on people lying in the streets.
In one clip, paramedics were seen checking the status of a dozen or more people who lay motionless under blue blankets. Police restricted traffic in nearby areas to speed up the transportation of the injured to hospitals across the city.
Witnesses described chaotic scenes before the crush, with police having trouble maintaining control of the crowds. Moon Ju-young, 21, said there had been clear signs of trouble in the alleys before the incident. “It was at least 10 times more crowded than usual,” he told Reuters.
An unnamed woman said her daughter and others had been trapped for more than an hour before being pulled from the crush alive.
Another witness said a makeshift morgue had been set up in a building adjacent to the scene. About four dozen bodies were carried out on wheeled stretchers and moved to a government facility to identify the victims, according to the witness.
The Itaewon district is popular with young South Koreans and expatriates alike. Its dozens of bars and restaurants were packed on Saturday for Halloween after businesses had suffered a sharp decline over three years of the pandemic.
With the easing of the Covid pandemic, curfews on bars and restaurants and a limit of 10 people for private gatherings were lifted in April. An outdoor mask mandate was dropped in May.
The disaster is the deadliest in South Korea since the Sewol ferry sank in 2014, killing 304 people, most of them high school students. Saturday’s deaths are likely to draw public scrutiny of what government officials have done to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.
This was the deadliest crushing disaster in South Korean history. In 2005, 11 people were killed and about 60 others injured at a pop concert in the southern city of Sangju.