Seoul, South Korea
Most weekends, the narrow streets of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district of Seoul, the South Korean capital, are bustling with partygoers and tourists. It is now the country’s worst disaster site.
Tens of thousands of people flooded downtown Seoul on Saturday night to celebrate Halloween, but panic grew as the crowd grew, with some witnesses saying they found it difficult to breathe and unable to move.
By Sunday, the death toll had risen to 154, with dozens injured. As families across the country mourn and search for missing loved ones, authorities have launched an urgent investigation to determine how what should have been a night of celebration went so horribly wrong.
Here’s what we know so far.
Itaewon has long been a favorite place to celebrate Halloween, especially as the holiday has become more popular in Asia in recent years. Some fly to Seoul from other countries in the region for the holiday.
But over the past two years, celebrations have been halted by restrictions on crowd sizes and mask mandates due to the pandemic.
Saturday night marked the first Halloween since the country lifted those restrictions, which is especially important to many attendees in Seoul, as well as international visitors, including foreign residents and tourists.
Nearby hotels and ticketed events were booked in advance and a large crowd was expected.
Witnesses told CNN that there was little — if any — control of the crowd before the mass death.
Videos and photos posted on social media showed people crammed together and standing shoulder to shoulder on narrow streets.
Even for Seoul residents who are used to the gridlocked subways and streets of a city of nearly 10 million people, the crowds are overwhelming.
An eyewitness said it took a while to realize something was wrong as the panicked screams of people competed with the music blaring from the surrounding clubs and bars.
Officials rushed to the scene after the first emergency call came in around 10:24 p.m., but the huge crowd made it difficult to reach those in need.
Videos posted on social media showed people pinning other partygoers to the ground while they waited for medical attention.
Thousands of people dressed in Halloween costumes contributed to the confusion and chaos. One witness said he saw a police officer screaming during the disaster, but some revelers mistook him for someone from another party.
Officials reported that there was a gas leak on the ground and there was no fire, but the cause of the fall is still under investigation.
The dead were teenagers, mostly in their 20s, officials said. Famous for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, Itaewon is popular with backpackers and international students.
Among the 154 people killed were 26 foreigners from the United States, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway, France, Russia, Austria, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, officials said. .
All but one of the victims have been identified, South Korean Prime Minister Han Dak-soo said at a press conference on Monday. Of the dead, 56 were men and 97 were women, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Ministry of Security.
South Korea’s Education Ministry said Monday that six middle school students were among the dead, including a middle school student. Three teachers also died.
As of 5 p.m. local time (4 a.m. ET) on Sunday, the number of injured had risen to 133, including 37 seriously, the ministry said.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government says it has received reports of more than 4,000 missing people. This number may include multiple reports for the same person or Saturday night reports for people found.
No one is believed to be missing from the scene as the police are not actively looking for missing persons. Instead, they said, missing persons information was used to identify the dead.
Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min 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, he said only a “normal” level of security forces were deployed in Itaewon because the crowd was not unusually large.
More than 1,700 emergency forces, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and about 70 civil servants, were dispatched to the disaster on Saturday night.
President Yoon Suk-yeol called an emergency meeting and urged officials to identify the dead as soon as possible.
But hours later, families were still waiting to hear if their loved ones had survived.
After that, many people were transferred to nearby facilities and the bodies were taken to multiple hospital morgues. Families have gathered in areas near the crash site and officials are collecting the names of the missing and the dead.
Yun vowed to implement new measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again, saying the government would “conduct special inspections, not only on Halloween, but also local festivals, and carefully manage them to ensure order and safety.”
The government will also provide psychological treatment to the families of the dead and injured. Authorities declared national mourning until Nov. 5 and designated Yongsan-gu, where Itaewon is located, as a special disaster zone.
As a shocked and grieving nation grapples with the tragedy, questions are also being raised about how such a disaster could have happened at a popular gathering place.
It’s hard to determine what caused the devastation, but authorities “anticipated a high number before Saturday night,” said Juliet Kayem, a CNN disaster management expert and national security analyst.
“It is the responsibility of the authorities to monitor the crowd in real time so that they can sense the need to evacuate people,” he added.
Suah Cho, 23, was caught in the crowd but managed to escape to a building across the street. Asked if he had seen officials trying to limit the number of people on the streets, he said: “Before the incident, not at all.”
Another eyewitness described the situation as “getting worse” and said “I can hear people calling for help from other people because there are not enough saviors to deal with it all”.