Concerned relatives ran to hospitals on Sunday in search of their loved ones, as South Korea mourned the deaths of at least 151 people, mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings, who were trapped and crushed after a huge crowd of Halloween parties descended a narrow alleyway in a nightlife burst into Seoul neighborhood.
Tens of thousands of people are said to have gathered in Itaewon on Saturday evening for the festivities. Witnesses say the streets were so crowded with people and slow-moving vehicles that it was practically impossible for rescuers and ambulances to reach the alleyway near the Hamilton Hotel as the situation quickly developed into one of the worst disasters in the country in years. .
There were concerns that the death toll could rise as 24 people of the 104 being treated for injuries are in critical condition, according to the Seoul City disaster headquarters.
The city government said more than 2,600 people called or visited a city office in nearby Hannam-dong as of Saturday afternoon, reporting that their relatives were out of contact and asking officials to confirm whether they were among those injured or killed following the crush.
19 foreigners among the dead
The dead included 19 foreigners, said Choi Seong-beom, chief of Seoul’s Yongsan fire department. The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not confirmed the nationalities of those victims, but it said it has warned their country’s embassies in Seoul. At least three Chinese citizens have been killed, according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
The bodies of the dead were kept in 42 hospitals in the capital Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi province, according to the city of Seoul.
About 100 businesses in the Hamilton Hotel area have agreed to close their stores through Monday to reduce the number of revelers who would take to the streets during Halloween Day.
An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon for the country’s largest outdoor Halloween festivities since the start of the pandemic, and strict gathering rules were enforced. The South Korean government has been easing COVID-19 restrictions in recent months and this was the first big opportunity for many young people to get out and party.
Although Halloween is not a traditional holiday in South Korea, where children rarely trick-or-treat, it is still a major attraction for young adults, and costume parties in bars and clubs have become extremely popular in recent years.
Near where the former headquarters of the United States Armed Forces in South Korea operated before leaving the capital in 2018, Itaewon is an expat-friendly neighborhood known for its trendy bars, clubs and restaurants and is the city’s party spot. for Halloween.
National mourning period
Officials initially said 150 people had been injured as of Sunday morning, but they later reduced their numbers. National Fire Agency officials didn’t immediately explain why the numbers had fallen, but said rescuers would have had a more accurate idea of the casualties as rescues progressed and that some of the injured would have turned into dead. It was also possible that some of the slightly injured had returned home at night and were no longer counted.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol declared a period of national mourning on Sunday and ordered flags on government buildings and public offices to be flown at half-mast. In a televised address, Yoon said supporting the victims’ families, including their funeral preparations, and treating the injured would be a top priority for his government.
He also called on officials to thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident and assess the safety of other major cultural and entertainment events, including regional festivals, to ensure they run safely.
“This is truly devastating. The tragedy and disaster that should not have happened happened in the heart of Seoul during Halloween [celebrations]Yoon said during the speech. “I am weighed down and cannot contain my grief as a president who is responsible for the lives and safety of the people.”
After the speech, Yoon visited Itaewon alley where the disaster happened. Local TV footage showed Yoon inspecting the alley full of trash and being notified by emergency services.
It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted the crowd to rush into the narrow alleyway near the Hamilton Hotel, a major party venue in Seoul. One survivor said many people fell and knocked each other over “like dominoes” after being pushed by others. The survivor, nicknamed Kim, said they were trapped for about an hour and a half before being rescued, as some people shouted “Help me!” shouted. and others were short of breath, according to the Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper.
Rows of bodies
Another survivor, Lee Chang-kyu, said he saw about five or six men pushing others before one or two started falling, according to the paper.
In an interview with news channel YTN, Hwang Min-hyeok, a visitor to Itaewon, said it was shocking to see rows of bodies near the hotel. He said rescuers were initially overwhelmed, making it difficult for pedestrians to administer CPR to the injured lying in the street. People wailed next to their friends’ bodies, he said.
Another survivor in his 20s said he avoided being trampled by managing to enter a bar whose door was open in the alley, UKTN reported. A woman in her twenties, nicknamed Park, told Yonhap that she and others stood by the side of the alley, while others trapped in the middle of the alley had no escape.
Choi, the fire chief, said the bodies were sent to hospitals or a gym where relatives could identify them. He said most of the dead and injured are in their 20s.
“Terrible news from Seoul tonight,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted. “All our thoughts are with those currently responding and with all South Koreans at this very disturbing time.”
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted that reports of the disaster were “heartbreaking” and said Washington “stands ready to give the Republic of Korea all the support it needs”.
2nd major crushing disaster in a month
The latest deadly South Korean disaster also hit young people the hardest. In April 2014, 304 people, mostly high school students, died in the sinking of a ferry. The sinking revealed lax safety rules and regulatory shortcomings. It was attributed in part to excessive and poorly secured cargo and a crew poorly trained for emergencies. Saturday’s deaths are likely to draw public attention to what government officials have been doing to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.
It was also the second major devastating disaster in Asia in a month. On October 1, police in Indonesia fired tear gas at a football match, killing 132 people as spectators tried to flee.
More than 1,700 emergency services from across the country were deployed to the streets to help the injured, including about 520 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and 70 government employees. The National Fire Agency said separately in a statement that officials were still trying to determine the exact number of emergency patients.