South Korea was in mourning on Monday after more than 150 people, mostly young adults, died in a huge crowd at the Halloween party rushes into a narrow alley in a nightlife area of Seoul.
It remains unclear what prompted the crowds to head down the driveway in the Itaewon area on Saturday night, and authorities have promised a full investigation. Witnesses said people were falling on top of each other “like dominoes” and some victims were bleeding from their noses and mouths during CPR.
On Monday morning, people placed white chrysanthemums, drinks and candles on a small makeshift altar at an exit from Itaewon subway station, a short walk from the scene of the crush. Another memorial for the victims has been erected in Seoul’s City Hall Square, and more have been erected across the country.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, who declared a period of national mourning and designated Itaewon as a disaster area, visited a memorial altar near City Hall and paid tribute to the victims.
Most nearby shops and cafes were closed and police cordoned off the site of the incident, which was littered with rubbish. Schools, kindergartens and businesses across the country have canceled planned Halloween events. K-pop concerts and government briefings have also been canceled.
South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo promised an investigation into the disaster as calls for accountability grew in the press and online.
As many as 100,000 people – mostly teenagers and 20s, many wearing Halloween costumes – had flocked to Itaewon’s winding backstreets to reach bars and clubs, but witnesses reported having seen a relatively small number of police on the streets in relation to the size of the crowds.
Itaewon is part of Yongsan, one of the 25 districts of the Korean capital. On Oct. 28, the district announced plans to run Itaewon Halloween celebrations, a gathering that draws huge crowds but has no official organizer. The authority set out measures including anti-Covid precautions, security checks for bars and restaurants, garbage management and anti-drug policies, but nothing on how to control revelers who were expected to converge on the area .
Police said at a Monday briefing that they had deployed 137 officers for the event, saying the number was significantly higher than in previous years. But local reports said most of the police deployed were focused on drug use and traffic control, rather than crowd control.
“It was a disaster that could have been controlled or prevented,” Lee Young-ju, a professor in Seoul University’s Department of Fires and Disasters, told YTN TV. “But it was not taken care of, with no one taking responsibility in the first place.”
A editorial published in the Korea JoongAng Daily on Monday pointed to the lack of a central organizer as a contributing factor, but argued that “the disaster could have been avoided if the police and fire department had prepared carefully in advance for possible scenarios”.
The editorial also urged people to stop sharing images and videos of victims online and called on authorities to “find effective solutions to prevent such calamities, given the usual overcrowding at many festivals across the country.” the country”.
Online, claims have also spread that police this year were not actively managing the crowds, which resulted in too many people gathering around the metro station and in the alley at the epicenter of the disaster. .
“I’ve lived in Itaewon for 10 years and experienced Halloween every year, but yesterday was by no means particularly crowded compared to previous years,” one Twitter user wrote. “Ultimately, I think the cause of the disaster was crowd control.”
American Steve Blesi, whose son Steven died in Itaewon, expressed his anger at the authorities for allowing the crowd to grow so large. “I see grieving politicians on Twitter,” he said. “It’s just, to me, publicity on their side. So they should be working to try to make sure rules are in place so this type of overcrowding never happens again.
On Sunday, the government defended the policing plan.
“[The crush] was not a problem that could be solved by deploying police or firefighters in advance,” Interior Minister Lee Sang-min told a press briefing. The Seoul Central Police Agency also dismissed accusations that hundreds of police were redeployed for the president’s security after he recently moved the presidential office and residence in Yongsan district, noting that its security forces have no connection with those of the Yongsan district police.
Almost two-thirds of those killed – 98 – were women and 149 people were injured. More than 80% of the dead were in their 20s and 30s, and at least four were teenagers.
The Interior and Security Ministry said the death toll could rise further as 33 of the injured were in serious condition.
Witnesses said many people seemed unaware of the disaster unfolding just steps away from them. Some dressed in Halloween costumes continued to sing and dance nearby while others lay lifeless on the ground.
Ken Fallas, a Costa Rican architect who traveled to Itaewon with expat friends, used his smartphone to film a video showing unconscious people being carried out of the alley as others screamed for help. He said loud music made things more chaotic.
“When we just started moving forward, there was no way to go back,” Fallas said. “We didn’t hear anything because the music was very loud. Now, I think that’s one of the main things that made this so complicated.
More than 25 of the dead are foreigners from the United States, China, Australia, Russia, Iran and elsewhere.
The bodies of the dead were being kept at 42 hospitals in Seoul and neighboring Gyeonggi Province, according to the city of Seoul, which said it would ask crematoria to carry out more cremations every day as part of plans to support the funeral procedures.
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 safety of other major cultural and entertainment events.
“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 the alley where the disaster happened. Local television footage showed him inspecting the driveway and being briefed by emergency services officials.
World leaders offered their condolences, including Pope Francis.
Of the 26 foreigners who died, four are from China; three from Russia; two from Iran; and one each from Vietnam, Australia, Austria, Norway, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka and the United States, the interior ministry said.
The influx of crowds was South Korea’s deadliest disaster since 2014, when 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.
With Associated Press and Agence France-Presse