Crowd surge at venue of Halloween celebration leaves 154 dead in South Korea

This year’s Halloween in South Korea will go down in history as one of the worse after 154 people died on Saturday from a crowd surge. Thousands of people gathered at a club alley in Itaewon, Seoul, to mark this year’s Halloween, but the crowd continued to grow bigger until the space became too small, thereby leading to the deadly surge.

Officials said most of the victims were young women, most in their 20s. About 136 others are said to have sustained various degrees of injuries. Preliminary investigations revealed that about 26 victims were foreigners. 

One eyewitness told Yonhap news agency that people kept pushing down into a downhill club alley, and they started falling 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,” the unidentified eyewitness said.

Following the incident, the president of South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, has declared a period of mourning, starting on Sunday.

“This is truly tragic,” president Yoon said in a statement. “The government will designate the period from today until the accident is brought under control as a period of national mourning.”

The President visited the scene of the incident on Sunday to commiserate with the families of the victims and to see things for himself.

As of Sunday, the death toll stands at 154. 133 others are injured, and 37 of them are serious injuries.

“An accident [that] was bound to happen”

Many of the eyewitnesses that spoke to newsmen said the crowd was unprecedented. Although some eyewitnesses have estimated the crowd to be about 100,000, it was unlikely that the figure was correct. However, it would be difficult to know the exact figure as there was no official information to show it. However, a massive crowd was expected as it was the first time Halloween is celebrated on the streets of South Korea after two years due to the lockdown.

Others were grateful that they managed to survive one of the deadliest Halloween incidents in history. 

“There were so many people just being pushed around and I got caught in the crowd and I couldn’t get out at first too,” Jeon Ga-eul, who was at the party, told the AFP news. “I felt like an accident was bound to happen.”

Another unidentified survivor blamed the deaths and injuries on owners of stores, bars, and clubs, who failed to open their shops for those trying to escape from the crowds.

“It looks like the casualties were more severe as people attempted to escape to nearby stores but were kicked out back to the street because business hours were over,” the eyewitness and survivor said.

Nuhyil, who lives in Seoul, explained what happened on Saturday night and said there was no crowd control and a lot of people were trapped in the crowd.

“Even if you stand still, someone pushes you from the front and someone from the back. It happened a few times. I realised something was wrong. I felt afraid something was going to happen,” Nuhyil told the BBC.

Nuhyil said he fell at some point but managed to find his way to the steps along the alley with the help of a woman.

“People were suffocating, screaming… getting squeezed… falling… there were just too many people,” he continued. “I was on the step just watching everything happening.”

A surge, not a stampede

Although what happened in Seoul has been described by some as a stampede, crowd safety experts have described it as a surge. A surge happens when people are packed together to the extent that the crowd reaches a breaking point. 

Unlike a surge, there is space for people to escape in a stampede. The parties in Itaewon were held in the small long alley, and matters only got worse after more and more people joined the already-filled venue. The movements of people led to pushing, causing the crowd to fall over.

CPR Could not help

Soon after the crowd collapsed, the hope that some of the victims were still alive pushed sympathizers to carry out cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on them.

24-year-old Melissa, a Spanish lady, who resides in Seoul, said the many people jumped in to see if they could help save at least one victim.

“There were so many people that they needed normal people to do CPR. So everyone started jumping in and helping. We had two friends who knew how to do CPR and they went out to help,” Ana told the BBC.

“Three minutes later or maybe more, they came back, looking so traumatized and crying. Because they tried to save five or six people and they all died in my friends’ hands,” she added.

Ana said it was her first time doing CPR, and she did it based on the instructions of others that have done it before. 

“I was trying to help but they were both dead as well. I have to say all the people they were bringing in to do CPR were already not breathing so they couldn’t do anything,” the 24-year-old stated.

“We couldn’t do anything, that was the main trauma,” she added. 

Videos shared on social media showed volunteers doing CPR on the victims. However, it appears that all of them have died, and there was nothing they could do to save them.

The search for missing relatives

There was confusion and suspense among residents of Itaewon who were yet to see their loved ones after the incident. Worse still, most of their phones were switched off. 

One mother told the Korea Herald that she was searching for her son, and all efforts to reach him through the phone have failed.

“When I got to Itaewon they said there were a lot of lost phones, and that I should try the nearby hospital and see if he made it there,” she said. “Maybe he died. I don’t know. I can’t reach him.”

Another mother told the Korea Herald that she does not know where to go in search of his son. She said she had gone to the hospital and the gym where the bodies of the victims are kept.

The confused mother asked the Police: “Where do I have to go? Please tell me what I have to do.”

The government has ordered a speedy identification of victims to calm parents that are traumatized by the whereabouts of their children. 

Dozens of foreigners among the victims

At least 26 foreign nationals have been confirmed to be among the victims of Saturday’s surge. The United States embassy in a statement released on Sunday said two of its citizens were among those that died while celebrating. 

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of so many lives last night, to include two young Americans celebrating alongside their Korean friends and others from around the world,” Philip Goldberg, the US ambassador to South Korea said in a statement from the US embassy. 

Reacting to the incident and the death of the two Americans, President Biden tweeted: “Jill and I are devastated to learn that at least two Americans are among so many who lost their lives in Seoul. Our hearts go out to their loved ones in this time of grief, and we continue to pray for the recovery of all who were injured.”

The French ministry of foreign affairs also released a statement on Sunday, saying one of its citizens died in Saturday’s surge. 

“It is with great sadness that we learned of the death of one of our compatriots during the tragedy in Seoul,” the French foreign ministry said on Sunday. 

So far, China has confirmed the loss of two citizens, while Iran has confirmed the death of three citizens. Thailand confirmed the death of a 29-year-old who travelled to Seoul to study Korean for two months. Russia was not left out, as a Russian news agency confirmed the death of three Russians in Saturday’s incident. 

Other countries that lost citizens include Australia, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, Austria and Kazakhstan.

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