Seoul, South Korea
On most weekends, the narrow alleys of Itaewon, the nightlife district of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, are neon-lit and teeming with parties and tourists. It is now the site of one of the country’s worst disasters.
Tens of thousands of people flocked to central Seoul to celebrate Halloween on Saturday night, but panic broke out as the crowd swelled, with some witnesses saying it became difficult to breathe and impossible to move.
By Sunday, the death toll had risen to 154, with dozens more injured. Authorities have launched an urgent investigation to find out how the festive night turned out to be so horrific 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 grown in popularity in Asia in recent years. Some even fly to Seoul from other countries in the region for the holidays.
But the festivities have been muted for the past two years due to pandemic restrictions on crowd sizes and mask mandates.
Saturday night marked the first Halloween since the country lifted those restrictions, making it especially meaningful for many willing participants in Seoul, as well as international visitors, including foreign residents and tourists.
Hotels in the neighborhood and tickets to the events were booked well in advance, and large crowds were expected.
Witnesses told CNN there was very little (if any) crowd control before the mass of people turned deadly.
Videos and photos posted on social media show people standing shoulder to shoulder on a narrow street.
Crowds are not unusual for the area or for Seoul residents, who are used to crowded subways and streets of nearly 10 million people.
One witness said it took a while for people to realize something was wrong, with people’s panicked screams competing with the music blaring from nearby clubs and bars.
After the first emergency calls at around 10:24 p.m. officers rushed to the scene, but the large number of people made it difficult to reach those who needed help.
A video posted on social media showed people applying compresses to other partygoers lying on the ground while waiting for medical help.
Thousands of people wearing Halloween costumes contributed to the widespread sense of confusion and chaos. One witness said he saw a police officer screaming at the crash, but some revelers mistook him for another partygoer.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation, but officials said there was no evidence of a gas leak or fire at the scene.
The victims were young, mostly in their teens and 20s, officials said. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, Itaewon is popular with travelers and international students.
The 154 dead include at least 26 foreign nationals, with victims from countries including 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 Duck-soo said at a briefing on Monday. South Korea’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Security said the victims were 56 men and 97 women.
Sunday at 5 p.m. local time (4 a.m. ET), the number of injured rose to 133, 37 of whom were seriously injured, the ministry said.
Seoul city authorities said they had received more than 4,000 missing person reports. This number may include multiple reports of the same person or reports filed Saturday night about people who have been found.
Police said there is no active search for missing people as they believe no one is missing from the scene; rather, they said, missing persons reports were used to help 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, the crowd in Itaewon was not unusually large, he said, so only “normal” levels of security forces were deployed there.
More than 1,700 emergency response forces, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and about 70 government workers, were dispatched to the disaster on Saturday evening.
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 were alive.
In the immediate aftermath, many people were transferred to nearby facilities and the bodies were taken to a number of hospital morgues. Families gathered in places near the scene, where officials collected the names of the missing and the dead.
Yoon vowed to implement new measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again, saying the government would “conduct immediate inspections not only at Halloween events, but also at local festivals and carefully manage them to ensure they are held in an orderly and safe manner.”
The government will also provide psychological treatment and a fund for the families of the dead and injured. Authorities declared national mourning until Nov. 5 and designated the Yongsan-gu district, where Itaewon is located, as a special disaster zone.
As a stunned and grieving nation grapples with the tragedy, there are also questions as to how such a disaster could have happened in a popular area known for gathering people.
It’s difficult to determine exactly what may have sparked the crash, but authorities were “expecting high numbers … before Saturday night,” said Juliette Kayyem, a disaster management expert and CNN national security analyst.
“It is the responsibility of the authorities to monitor the crowd flow in real time so that they can sense the need to evacuate people,” she added.
Suah Cho, 23, was dragged into the crowd but managed to escape to a building along the avenue. Asked if she saw officers trying to limit the number of people entering the alley, she said: “Before the incident, not at all.”
Another witness described the situation as “getting worse and worse”, saying he heard “people asking other people for help because there weren’t enough rescuers to deal with it all”.