Seoul’s Halloween disaster: What we know about the deadly Itaewon crush


Seoul, South Korea
CNN

Most weekends, the narrow lanes of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district of South Korea’s capital, Seoul, are bustling with partygoers and tourists. Now it is the site of one of the country’s worst disasters.

On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people flooded into the area in central Seoul to celebrate Halloween – but panic erupted as the crowds swelled, with some witnesses saying it became difficult to breathe and impossible to move.

Through Sunday, the death toll climbed to 154, with dozens more 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 celebrations.

But for the past two years, celebrations have been muted by pandemic restrictions on crowd sizes and mask mandates.

Saturday night marked the first Halloween since the country lifted these restrictions – giving it special significance to many of Seoul’s eager participants, as well as international visitors including foreign residents and tourists.

Hotels and ticketed events in the neighborhood were booked solid in advance, and large crowds were expected.

Witnesses told CNN that there was little – if any – crowd control before the mass of people turned deadly.

Videos and photos posted to social media show people huddled together, standing shoulder to shoulder in the narrow street.

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Crowds are not unusual in that area, or for Seoul residents, who are used to crowded subways and streets in a city of nearly 10 million.

One eyewitness said it took some time for people to realize something was wrong, with people’s panicked screams competing with music playing from the nearby clubs and bars.

Bystanders, police and paramedics gather in the popular Itaewon nightlife district in Seoul on October 30, 2022.

After the first emergency calls came in around 10:24 pm, authorities rushed to the scene – but the sheer number of people made it difficult to reach those who needed help.

A video posted to social media showed people performing compressions on other parties lying on the ground as they waited for medical help.

The thousands of people in Halloween costumes contributed to the widespread sense of confusion and chaos. One witness described seeing a police officer shouting during the disaster – but some revelers mistook it for another party.

An investigation into the cause of the crush continues, although officials have said there were no gas leaks or fires at the site.

A victim's body is carried on a stretcher in Itaewon, Seoul, South Korea on October 30.

The victims were young, 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 154 who died were at least 26 foreign nationals, according to authorities, with victims from countries including the United States, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway, France, Russia, Austria, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

All but one of the victims have been identified, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said at a briefing on Monday. The toll included 56 men and 97 women, South Korea’s Ministry of Interior and Security reported.

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South Korea’s Ministry of Education said on Monday that six school students were among the dead, including one in middle school. Three teachers also died.

As of 5 pm local time Sunday (4 am ET), the number of injured had risen to 133, of which 37 were seriously injured, the ministry said.

The Seoul city government said more than 4,000 missing person reports had been received. That number could include multiple reports for the same person, or reports filed Saturday night for people who have since been found.

Police said there is no active search for those reported missing as they believe no one went missing from the scene; instead, they said that the missing persons reports had been used to help identify those who had died.

Emergency services treat injured people in Seoul on October 30.

Lee Sang-min, the Minister of Internal Affairs 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 had not been 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 response forces were dispatched, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police officers, and about 70 government workers.

President Yoon Suk Yeol called an emergency meeting and urged officials to identify the dead as soon as possible.

But even hours later, families were still waiting to find out if their loved ones survived.

Relatives of missing people weep at a community service center on October 30 in Seoul, South Korea.

Immediately afterwards, many people were transferred to nearby facilities, while bodies were taken to multiple hospital morgues. Families gathered at sites near the location, where officers were collecting the names of those who were missing and the deceased.

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Yoon promised to implement new measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again, saying the government would “conduct urgent inspections not only for Halloween events but also for local festivals and thoroughly control them so that they be conducted in an orderly and safe manner.”

The government will also provide psychological treatment and a fund to the families of the deceased and injured. Authorities have declared a period of national mourning until November 5, and have designated the Yongsan-gu area, where Itaewon is located, as a special disaster area.

Flowers are seen at the scene of a fatal accident in Seoul, South Korea, on Sunday, October 30, 2022.

As a shocked and grieving nation comes to grips with the tragedy, questions are also emerging about how such a disaster could have unfolded in a popular area where people are known to congregate.

It’s hard to pinpoint what might have triggered the crush — but authorities “would have anticipated 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 be monitoring the size of the crowd in real time, so they can sense the need to get people out,” he added.

Suah Cho, 23, was caught in the crowd but managed to escape into a building along the lane. When asked if she had seen any officers trying to limit the number of people entering the lane, she replied: “Before the incident, none at all.”

Another eyewitness described the situation as getting “worse and worse,” saying they could hear “people asking other people for help, because there weren’t enough rescuers who can handle all that.”

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