Seoul, South Korea
On most weekends, the narrow streets of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district of South Korea’s capital, Seoul, are busy with parties and tourists. It is now the site of one of the country’s worst disasters.
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people flooded the area in central Seoul to celebrate Halloween – but panic broke out as the crowds swelled, with some witnesses saying it became difficult to breathe and not move.
At least 151 were killed in the crash and dozens more were injured. Authorities have now 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 mourn and search for missing loved ones.
Here’s what we know so far.
Itaewon has long been a popular place to celebrate Halloween, especially as the holiday has become more popular in Asia in recent years. Some even fly to Seoul from other countries in the region for the holidays.
But for the past two years, celebrations have been muted due to pandemic restrictions on crowd sizes and mask mandates.
Saturday night marked the first Halloween since the country lifted those restrictions – giving it special significance for many willing participants in Seoul, as well as international visitors, including foreign residents and tourists.
Hotels and ticketed events in the neighborhood were booked in advance and large crowds were expected.
Witnesses told CNN there was little to no crowd control before the mass of people turned deadly.
Videos and photos posted on social media show people huddled together, standing shoulder to shoulder on the narrow street.
The crowd is not unusual for that area or for Seoul residents, who are used to crowded subways and streets in a city of nearly 10 million.
An eyewitness said it took a while for people to realize something was wrong, with people’s panicked screams competing with the music blaring from nearby clubs and bars.
After the first emergency calls at around 10:24 p.m., authorities rushed to the scene – but the sheer volume of people made it difficult to reach those who needed help.
Video posted on social media showed people applying compressions to other bystanders lying on the ground as they waited for medical help.
The thousands of people in carnival costumes contributed to the widespread sense of confusion and chaos. One witness described seeing a policeman shouting during the mayhem – but some revelers mistook him for another party.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation, although officials said there were no gas leaks or fires at the scene.
The victims were young people, mostly in their teens and early 20s, authorities said. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, Itaewon is popular with backpackers and international students.
Among the 151 dead were 19 foreign nationals, with victims from Iran, Norway, China, Thailand and Uzbekistan, authorities said.
More than 90 percent of the victims have been identified, South Korea’s Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min said Sunday.
He added that about 10 people cannot be identified as some are under 17 – too young to have national ID – and others are foreign nationals.
As of 2 a.m. Sunday local time, Seoul authorities had received reports of 3,580 missing people, the city government said. That number could include multiple reports of the same person or reports filed Saturday night for people who have since been found.
Lee Sang-min, minister of interior and security, said on Sunday that “a significant number” of police and security forces had been sent to another part of Seoul on Saturday in response to expected protests there.
Meanwhile in Itaewon, the crowd was not unusually large, he said, so only a “normal” level of security forces had been deployed there.
As the disaster unfolded Saturday night, more than 1,700 emergency responders were dispatched, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police and about 70 government employees.
President Yoon Suk Yeol called an emergency meeting and urged officials to locate the dead as soon as possible.
But even hours later, families were still waiting to hear if their loved ones had survived.
Soon after, many people were taken to nearby facilities, while bodies were taken to several hospital cemeteries. Families gathered in areas near the scene as officials gathered the names of the missing and dead.
Yun promised to implement new measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again, saying the government “will conduct urgent inspections not only for Halloween events but also for local festivals and thoroughly manage them so that they can be conducted smoothly and safely.” way”.
The government will also provide psychological treatment and a fund for the families of the dead and injured. Authorities have declared national mourning until November 5 and designated Yongsan-gu, where Itaewon is located, as a special disaster area.
This narrow street was the scene of the fatal incident in Seoul
As a stunned and grieving nation grapples with the tragedy, questions are also being raised about how such a disaster could have unfolded in a popular area known to congregate.
It’s hard to determine what may have caused the crash — but authorities “would expect high numbers … before Saturday night,” said Juliette Kayyem, a disaster management expert and national security analyst for CNN.
“There is a responsibility on the part of the authorities to monitor the volume of the crowd in real time so that they can feel the need to get people out,” he added.
Suah Cho, 23, was arrested in the crowd but managed to escape to a building along the alley. When asked if he had seen any officials try to limit the number of people entering the alley, he replied: “Before the incident, not at all.”
Another eyewitness described the situation as getting “worse and worse”, saying they could hear “people calling for help for other people because there weren’t enough rescuers to just handle it all”.