At least 146 dead in Seoul Halloween crowd crush

People move bodies to be transported from hospital, after a stampede during a Halloween festival in Seoul, South Korea, October 30, 2022.

SEOUL – At least 149 people died and another 75 were injured Saturday night into early Sunday after a huge crowd celebrating Halloween in the narrow streets and alleys of the Itaewon area of Seoul became crammed in so tightly that many could not move or breath, according to fire department officials.

Witnesses reported a chaotic scene of partyers – as many as 100,000, by some estimates – massed into a few blocks near the Itaewon subway station. The area of restaurants and bars is popular with young people and foreign tourists.

Many of the victims were in their 20s and 30s, though some were teens, fire officials said. They included both Koreans and foreigners. On one street, as contained chaos swirled around them, pairs of young people desperately performed CPR on people lying on the pavement.

What wasn’t evident as of early Sunday morning was a precipitating event, if there was one. While there were rumors circulating, no reports surfaced immediately of something setting off a surge of people somewhere in the vicinity.

Emergency services agencies started receiving dozens of frantic phone calls about 10:30 p.m. local time, according to local media reports, all reporting victims in respiratory trouble or cardiac distress. Some 50 minutes later, the reports said, the fire department upgraded the seriousness of the incident, dispatching some 2,400 emergency responders and an estimated 142 ambulances.

The density of the crowd was such that people kept getting pressed closer and closer together, a situation worsened by the fact that some were still partying in the streets while others were pouring out of bars and clubs to head home.

“As people in the front fell over, those in the back were crushed,” a witness told Yonhap News Agency.

Soon, bodies covered in blue blankets were arrayed on the pavement with bewildered and confused onlookers wandering around in their midst.

People who an hour earlier had been celebrating were weeping and covering their faces in horror, videos and still images from the scene showed. Many were costumed in all manner of garb, from flashy party clothes to garish Halloween costumes.

About 45 people died on the scene, and the rest died in hospitals, a local official said at a news conference.

As reports became more serious, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol called on “all related ministries and agencies” to come to the aid of the injured. He ordered an immediate investigation, to be headed by the country’s prime minister.

Itaewon is a colorful center of Seoul nightlife. In a city that can make them feel unwelcome, foreigners flock to the area. Seoul’s gay community is also centered there. And while there are other nightlife districts – Gangnam is popular with wealthy expats and elite Seoulites, and Hongdae is popular with college students – Itaewon tends to have more diverse, consistent throngs.

With most coronavirus restrictions dropped, this was the first big Halloween celebration in Seoul since the pandemic hit in 2020. In 2021, many people stayed home, and strict rules kept the ones who came out from getting too rambunctious. The pent-up excitement let loose on Friday: At bars and clubs, patrons expressed surprise at how crowded Itaewon was – and some fears about how chaotic Saturday would be.

Disbelief, confusion and shock showed on the faces of the young people still at the scene early Sunday. On back streets just a few blocks away, some partyers were still reveling at bars. Many did not know about the disaster until they tried to leave and found themselves blocked by the emergency vehicles and officials who had taken over the main area, wheeling bodies onto ambulances.

As families searched for their missing relatives, many bodies were still unidentified. They had been moved to a nearby gymnasium for identification, which was just beginning by 4:30 a.m. local time.

Canadian Erin O’Toole, an English teacher who has been in South Korea for a decade, said the Itaewon area had become increasingly popular for Halloween celebrations. She had warned her friends to come no later than 4 p.m. for fear of crowds.

“I knew tonight would be crazy, but I did not know it would be this bad,” she said, in tears.

When reporters asked fire officials what families trying to locate relatives should think, one official said it was not possible to say if those still not found after several hours should be presumed dead.

Seoul officials said they were keeping a list of people calling to ask about missing relatives. Local police said there was not yet a system set up for families to be notified about the status of victims unless they knew the hospital where a loved one had been taken.

The tragedy in Itaewon appeared to be the deadliest disaster in South Korea since 2014, when the capsizing of the Sewol ferry killed 304 people.

It was the second major deadly crush this month. At least 130 people were killed on Oct. 1 at a soccer stadium in Indonesia when police fired tear gas at fans, a Washington Post investigation found.

Such crushes are often driven by panic or urgency at large events, whether celebratory, religious or circumstantial. In May, at least 31 people died after a crowd rushed to get free goods at a charity event in Nigeria, Al Jazeera reported. In January, CNN reported, at least a dozen people were killed at a holy shrine in India on New Year’s Day.

One of the deadliest stampedes in modern history occurred in Saudi Arabia in 2015 during the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. At least 2,411 people were killed, an Associated Press count found.

Choi Boseong had last texted his girlfriend about 9 p.m. local time Saturday, during what was supposed to be a fun night with his two best friends for his 24th birthday in Itaewon. But an hour later, the crowd he was in grew out of control, and one of his friends lost sight of him, the friend told Boseong’s girlfriend, Gabriela Pares, who was in the United States watching the scene on a TikTok live stream.

Worried, Pares said she tried calling and texting her boyfriend, without a response. When she called Boseong’s sister, who lives about 40 minutes away from Itaewon, the family hadn’t yet realized the extent of the tragedy.

Boseong’s father, sister and friend began searching hospitals throughout Seoul for him, Pares said. He had last been seen wearing a green jacket, a white shirt and blue jeans, but hours later, someone had found his jacket and his cellphone and returned it to his friend.

A devastated Pares said she was waiting for news from half a world away. “It’s really hard,” she said tearfully, “especially because I’m here in the U.S., so there’s not much that I can do.”

Later she heard the worst: Boseong had died. She said she would leave for South Korea on Sunday to be with his family. “This is a tragedy,” she said in a text message.

The death toll in Itaewon drew grief from world leaders.

“Horrific news from Seoul tonight,” tweeted British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. “All our thoughts are with those currently responding and all South Koreans at this very distressing time.”

In a statement released by the White House, President Joe Biden said that he and the first lady “send our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones in Seoul. We grieve with the people of the Republic of Korea and send our best wishes for a quick recovery to all those who were injured.”