Seoul, South Korea
Most weekends, the narrow alleys of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district of South Korea’s capital Seoul, are bustling with partygoers and tourists. It is now the scene of the worst disaster in the country.
Tens of thousands of people rushed into central Seoul neighborhoods to celebrate Halloween on Saturday night — but panic erupted as the crowds swelled, with some witnesses having trouble breathing and moving. He said he couldn’t do it anymore.
By Sunday, the death toll had reached 154 and dozens were injured. Authorities have launched an urgent investigation to find out how what was supposed to be a night of celebration went so horribly wrong, as families across the country grieving and searching for their missing loved ones. Did.
Here’s what we know so far.
Itaewon has long been a popular place to celebrate Halloween, especially in Asia in recent years.
But over the past two years, celebrations have been curtailed by pandemic restrictions on crowd sizes and mask mandates.
Saturday night marked the first Halloween since the country lifted these restrictions. It gave special significance not only to the many enthusiastic attendees in Seoul, but also to overseas visitors, including expats and tourists.
Nearby hotels and ticketed events were booked well in advance, and large crowds were expected.
Witnesses told CNN that there was little, if any, crowd control before a large number of people died.
Videos and photos posted on social media show people standing shoulder to shoulder in narrow streets.
Crowds are not uncommon for Seoul residents, accustomed to crowded subways and streets in the area and in a city of about 10 million people.
One eyewitness said the music blaring from the surrounding clubs and bars competed with people’s panicked screams, and it took a while for people to realize that something was wrong.
After the first emergency call was made around 10:24 pm, authorities rushed to the scene, but too many people had difficulty reaching those in need.
Videos posted on social media showed people applying pressure to other partygoers lying on the ground while waiting for medical help.
Thousands of people in Halloween costumes spread a sense of confusion and chaos. Some of the noisemakers mistook him for another partygoer.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation, but officials say there were no gas leaks or fires at the scene.
Officials said the casualties were young, mostly in their teens to early 20s. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, Itaewon is popular with backpackers and international students.
Officials said at least 26 of the 154 dead were foreigners and came from countries such as the United States, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway, France, Russia, Austria, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. There were victims. .
South Korean Prime Minister Han Duk-soo said at a news conference on Monday that all but one of the victims had been identified. The toll included 56 men and 97 women, South Korea’s Ministry of Interior and Security reported.
South Korea’s education ministry said on Monday that six students had died, including one in middle school. Three teachers also died.
As of 5 p.m. local time (4 a.m. ET) on Sunday, 133 people were injured, 37 of them seriously, the ministry said.
The Seoul city government said it had received reports of more than 4,000 missing persons. That number could include multiple reports of the same person, or reports of people found after being filed on Saturday night.
Police said they were not actively searching for those reported missing because they believed no one was missing from the scene. Rather, they said missing person reports would help identify those who died.
Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min said on Sunday that a “significant number” of police and security forces were dispatched to other parts of Seoul on Saturday to respond to the expected protests.
In Itaewon, meanwhile, there weren’t unusually large crowds, so only a “normal” level of security forces was deployed, he said.
More than 1,700 emergency responders, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and about 70 government employees, were deployed as the disaster struck on Saturday night.
President Yoon Seok-yeol called an emergency meeting and urged authorities to identify the dead as soon as possible.
But even hours later, the family was waiting to see if their loved ones had survived.
Many were transferred to nearby facilities shortly after, and bodies were taken to multiple hospital morgues. Families gathered at a location near the scene as authorities compiled the names of the missing and dead.
Prime Minister Yoon said, “The government will carry out emergency inspections not only for Halloween events but also for local festivals, etc., and thoroughly manage them to ensure that they are held in an orderly and safe manner,” promising to take new measures to prevent a recurrence. did.
The government will also provide psychological treatment and funds to the families of the dead and injured. Authorities have declared a nationwide mourning period until Nov. 5 and have designated the Yongsan district, where Itaewon is located, as a special disaster area.
As a stunned and grieving nation grapples with tragedy, questions are also being raised about how such a disaster could have occurred in a popular area known for gathering people.
It’s difficult to determine what triggered the crash, but officials “would have expected a significant number by Saturday night,” said disaster management expert and CNN’s national security analyst. said Juliette Kayem.
“Authorities are responsible for monitoring crowd numbers in real time and can feel the need to kick people out,” she added.
Sua Cho, 23, was caught in a crowd but managed to escape to a building along an alley. When asked if she had ever seen authorities try to limit the number of people entering the alley, she replied, “Before the incident, not at all.”
Another witness described the situation as “getting worse” and added, “We could hear people calling for help for others because there weren’t enough rescuers to handle everything. I said.