More than 150 people were killed and dozens more injured in a deadly stampede at a packed Halloween event in downtown Seoul late Saturday, officials said, in one of the worst accidents ever in South Korea.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol declared a period of national mourning on Sunday and said the government would pay for the medical care of the injured and the funerals of the dead.
The crowds poured in and crashed into the capital’s popular Itaewon neighborhood, where local reports say as many as 100,000 people – mostly teenagers and 20s – had gone to celebrate Halloween, clogging the area’s narrow alleys and winding streets.
“A tragedy and disaster has occurred in the center of Seoul that should not have happened,” Yoon said in a national speech.
The government “will thoroughly investigate the cause of the incident and make fundamental improvements to ensure that the same accident does not happen again in the future.”
“My heart is heavy and it’s hard to contain my grief,” he added.
Wearing green coats denoting a national emergency, Yoon and other top officials visited the accident scene early Sunday and spoke with emergency personnel, according to images on local TV.
Previously, eyewitnesses had described being trapped in a narrow, sloping alleyway, scrambling to get out of the suffocating crowd as people eventually piled on top of each other.
Paramedics, soon overwhelmed by the number of casualties, asked passersby to provide first aid, just on the edge of the chaos.
“So many people were being pushed around and I got caught up in the crowd and I couldn’t get out at first either,” 30-year-old Jeon Ga-eul told AFP.
The fire service said at least 151 people, including 19 foreigners, were killed in the stampede, which took place around 10 p.m. (1300 GMT).
The Interior Ministry said 150 more were injured.
“The high casualty rate was a result of many being trampled during the Halloween event,” fire chief Choi Seong-beom told reporters at the scene, adding that the death toll could rise.
Seoul authorities said they also received 355 reports of missing people early Sunday.
AFP photos of the scene showed dozens of bodies scattered on the sidewalk covered in sheets and rescuers dressed in orange vests loading even more bodies onto stretchers into ambulances.
“People lay like a tomb on top of others. Some gradually lost consciousness, while some seemed dead at the time,” an eyewitness told the Yonhap News Agency.
In an interview with local broadcaster YTN, Lee Beom-suk, a doctor who provided first aid to the victims, described scenes of tragedy and chaos.
“The faces of so many victims were pale. I couldn’t catch their heartbeat or breath and many of them had nosebleeds. When I tried CPR, I also pumped blood from their mouths.”
– ‘Oh my God’ –
Twitter user @janelles_story shared a video she says showed Itaewon shortly before the stampede began, in which hundreds of young people, many in elaborate Halloween costumes, are seen in a narrow street lined with bars and cafes.
The crowd appears good-humoured and calm at first, but then a commotion ensues and people are pushed and pressed together. There is screaming and gasping and a woman’s voice yells in English “Shit, shit!” followed by “Oh my god, oh my god!”
Choi of the fire service said the bodies of the victims were taken to a gym not far from the site of the stampede and to nearby hospitals for identification.
Local television showed dozens of ambulances rushing to Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital, where some of the victims had been transported.
President Yoon ordered officials to send first aid teams and quickly secure hospital beds for those affected, the presidential office said.
Meanwhile, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, who was visiting Europe, decided to return home in the wake of the accident, Yonhap reported, citing city officials.
In Washington, Seoul’s staunch ally, US President Joe Biden said America stands “next to” South Korea after the tragedy.
– Emergency First Aid –
At the scene, which had been cordoned off by the police and bathed in red by hundreds of flashing lights, music continued to play from some bars.
Dazed passersby sat on the sidewalk, checking their phones. Others consoled themselves and hugged while others—seemingly unaware of the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding right next to them—continued to celebrate.
Ju Young Possamai, a bartender in the Itaewon district, said he had been to several Halloween parties in Korea and was shocked by the tragedy.
“It was very sad to see something that we never, never expected,” Possamai, 24, told AFP. “It’s always busy, but nothing like this has ever happened before.”
This year’s Halloween event was the first since the pandemic began in 2020, with South Koreans not being mandated to wear face masks outdoors.
(This story was not edited by NewsMadura staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)