President Yoon Suk-yeol declares a time of national mourning following a tragic spike in South Korea's Itaewon nightlife district
|During Seoul's Halloween celebrations, a crowd crush claimed at least 153 lives|
South Korea was in mourning as it tried to make sense of the deaths of at least 153 people who were crushed and trampled to death in a tight alley during Halloween celebrations in Itaewon, a densely populated nightlife district in Seoul.
On Saturday night, an estimated 100,000 people gathered in Itaewon, many dressed up, as the relaxation of social separation, mask mandates, and other anti-Covid measures opened the way for the first Halloween party in three years.
Before the catastrophic crush happened shortly after 10 p.m., revelers described chaotic situations caused by the overwhelming volume of people on the streets. Many of the passageways in the region off the main thoroughfare are tiny and slanted. So many people were murdered and injured on one such inclined roadway, near the Hamilton Hotel and only four metres wide.
During a live address on the incident on Sunday, President Yoon Suk-yeol declared a state of formal national mourning.
"As president, I am responsible for the lives and safety of the people, and my heart is heavy, and I am struggling to cope with my loss," Yoon added. "From today until the accident is brought under control, the government will declare a time of national mourning and will prioritize administrative matters in recovery and follow-up actions."
It was expected that the death toll may grow higher, as approximately 20 of the 82 injured were reported to be in critical condition in hospitals throughout South Korea's capital.
Witnesses described seeing masses surge in all directions, followed by many losing their balance on the slope, resulting in a domino reaction. People were seen on videos attempting to pull others out of the crowd by their arms.
"Individuals kept pressing down into a downhill club alley, resulting in other people shouting and falling down like dominos," a witness said on Twitter. I was afraid I'd be crushed to death as people continued to press without realizing there were individuals tumbling down at the start of the stampede."
According to several local media sources, the crush occurred as a huge number of individuals raced to an Itaewon pub after learning that a celebrity was visiting there.
Itaewon is recognized as an international district in Seoul, and until recently, a US military base was located nearby. There were 19 non-Koreans among the dead, including foreigners from China, Iran, Norway, and Uzbekistan.
According to Choi Seong-beom, the commander of the local fire department, the majority of victims were in their teens and twenties, with 97 female victims and 54 male victims.
"We will thoroughly investigate the cause of the disaster and make fundamental reforms so that similar accidents do not happen again in the future," Yoon said during his live televised speech.
He also instructed appropriate ministries to conduct urgent safety inspections of other upcoming Halloween festivities and festivals with huge crowds. Following his address to the country, Yoon went to the scene of the disaster and then to government buildings to oversee the reaction.
On Sunday, the ruling and opposition parties met to discuss the calamity and the national reaction.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon was returning to the city after a brief trip to Europe.
Flags of government institutions and other public buildings in South Korea were lowered to half-mast on Sunday. Numerous Halloween parades, concerts, and other activities were canceled, including a K-pop festival scheduled for Sunday in the southern port city of Busan, which was supposed to draw 40,000 people. Halloween displays and decorations have been removed from stores across the country.
More than 400 emergency personnel and 140 vehicles from across the country, including all available personnel in Seoul, were deployed to Itaewon's streets to treat the injured.
TV images and photos from the incident showed ambulances lining the streets, surrounded by cops, and emergency workers carrying the injured on stretchers. CPR was also performed on people laying in the streets by emergency personnel and passersby.
In one video, paramedics were seen checking on a dozen or more persons who were still and wrapped in blue blankets.
Police stopped traffic in the surrounding regions to expedite the delivery of the injured to hospitals throughout the city. On Itaewon's streets, dozens of people received CPR.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government released emergency text messages advising residents to come home as soon as possible.
Yoon stated that his government's primary priority would be to assist the victims' relatives, including burial arrangements, and to treat the injured.
"This is just devastating," he stated on television. "A tragedy and calamity that could have been avoided occurred in the center of Seoul during Halloween [celebrations]."
Yoon urged officials to guarantee that those injured receive prompt medical attention and that the safety of the festival grounds be reviewed. He also directed the health ministry to send out disaster medical teams and reserve beds in local hospitals to treat the injured.
Officials first stated that 150 people had been injured as of Sunday morning before decreasing their tally, claiming that more accurate figures had emerged as rescue operations progressed.
Witnesses recounted chaotic scenes before the crush, with police on hand in anticipation of the Halloween celebration struggling to keep control of the crowds at times.
Moon Ju-young, 21, stated that there were obvious signals of unrest in the lanes before to the occurrence. "It was at least ten times busier than usual," he told Reuters.
According to an unidentified woman, her daughter and others were stuck for more than an hour before being rescued from the crush alive.
Another witness stated that a temporary mortuary had been put up in a nearby building. According to the witness, some four dozen bodies were brought out on wheeled stretchers and moved to a government facility to be identified.
Itaewon is famous with both young South Koreans and expatriates. Its dozens of bars and eateries were filled on Halloween after businesses had suffered a significant downturn over the pandemic's three years.
"There would be large crowds and fireworks at Christmas... "But this was several tenfolds bigger than any of it," Park Jung-hoon, 21, said from the scene to Reuters.
"All our sympathies are with those now responding and all South Koreans at this extremely painful moment," British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted.
"We send our thoughts and sincere condolences to the families and friends of the slain and injured, as well as to the people [of South Korea] as they grieve this awful event," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted.
Curfews on pubs and restaurants, as well as a limit of 10 individuals for private parties, were relaxed in April when the Covid pandemic eased. In May, the requirement for outside masks was repealed.
The accident is South Korea's deadliest since the Sewol ferry collapsed in 2014, killing 304 people, the majority of whom were high school students. The sinking exposed low safety standards and regulatory flaws. It was partly blamed on heavy and improperly tied goods, as well as a crew that was unprepared for emergency scenarios.
The deaths on Saturday are expected to raise questions about what government authorities have done to strengthen public safety standards after the boat accident.
This was South Korea's deadliest crushing tragedy in its history. At a pop performance in the southern city of Sangju in 2005, 11 people were killed and over 60 more were injured.
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