SEOUL, South Korea — At least 149 people were killed and 78 others were injured in a stampede during Halloween festivities in Seoul, officials said, one of the biggest disasters in South Korea that will likely raise serious questions about public safety standards.
The massive death toll is being tallied after people were crushed by a large crowd pushing forward on a narrow alley in a major leisure and nightlife district in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood.
Choi Seong-beom, chief of Seoul’s Yongsan fire department, said most of the victims in the stampede Saturday night were people in their late teens and 20s. “The figures include two dead foreigners and 15 injured foreigners,” he said.
Earlier, Choi had said the death toll could rise and that an unspecified number among the injured were in critical condition. The number of injured had been reported to be as high as 150.
Choi said that the bodies were being sent to hospitals or a gym, where bereaved family members could identify them. He earlier said most of the dead and injured are in their 20s.
What we know about the deadly incident in Seoul
- At least 149 people were killed and 78 injured, officials said. Most of the victims were people in their teens and 20s.
- Two of the dead and 15 of the injured were foreigners. Additional information about their nationalities was not immediately available.
- Survivors reported people in the packed crowd falling over each other and being trampled as they were pushed down narrow alleys in the popular nightlife district.
- Both healthcare workers and bystanders administered CPR to people on the streets, and officials said all available emergency workers in the city were mobilized.
The Itaewon Fire Station official said in an earlier televised briefing that 21 people were confirmed to have suffered cardiac arrest.
As morning arrived in Itaewon, a sense of quiet fell over the scene of the tragedy. Groups of stragglers still in costume wandered down streets that were lined with emergency tape. Emergency vehicles stood idle, sirens blinking, while police blocked off the entrances to the alleys where the disaster occurred.
Some Halloween revelers sat stunned on the sidewalk nearby, still trying to process the events of the night before.
Lee Da-eum, 25, said she was in a nearby club when she heard that there had been an accident outside.
“I arrived early and could already see (Itaewon) was getting too crowded,” Lee said. “Then my mom started calling and texting after she saw the news. She knew I was coming here and was so worried.”
“How could this happen?” she said.
People fell ‘like dominos,’ survivor says
An estimated 100,000 people gathered in Itaewon — near a former headquarters of U.S. military forces in an area known for trendy bars, clubs and restaurants — for the country’s biggest outdoor Halloween festivities since the pandemic began. The South Korean government eased Covid-19 restrictions in recent months.
One survivor said many people fell and toppled to one another “like dominos” after they were being pushed by other people at a narrow downhill alley near Itaewon’s Hamilton Hotel. The survivor, surnamed Kim, said some people shouted “Help me!” and others were short of breath. Kim described being trampled by other people for about 1 ½ hours before being rescued, according to the Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper.
Another survivor, named Lee Chang-kyu, said he saw about five to six men start pushing others before one or two began falling one by one at the start of the stampede, according to the newspaper.
Video posted to social media from earlier in the evening show members of a packed crowd moving slowly down the street shoulder-to-shoulder in the same area where the stampede was alleged to have taken place.
Other videos of the packed crowd show people screaming and yelling and emergency medical personnel carrying victims down a littered street that had been cleared of crowds, and another shows someone trying to escape the stampede by scaling a wall.
The stampede is the biggest disaster since 304 people, mostly high school students, died in a ferry sinking in April 2014. The sinking exposed lax safety rules and regulatory failures as it was partially blamed on excessive and poorly fastened cargo and a crew poorly trained for emergency situations. Friday’s stampede will likely cause public criticism of government officials over what they’ve done to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.
More than 1,700 response personnel from across the country were deployed, including about 520 firefighters and 1,100 police officers and 70 government workers. The National Fire Agency said in a statement that all of Seoul’s available emergency workers have been mobilized.
TV footage and photos showed ambulance vehicles lined up in streets amid a heavy police presence and emergency workers moving the injured in stretchers. Emergency workers and pedestrians were also seen performing CPR on people lying in the streets. In one section, paramedics were seen checking the status of a dozen or more people who lied motionless under blue blankets.
In an interview with news channel YTN, Hwang Min-hyeok, one of the visitors to Itaewon, said it was shocking to see rows of bodies laid down in the alley near Hamilton Hotel. He said emergency workers were initially overwhelmed, leaving pedestrians struggling to administer CPR to the injured lying on the streets. People cried beside bodies, he said.
Another survivor in his 20s said he avoided being trampled as he luckily got into a bar whose door was open at the alley, Yonhap news agency reported. A woman in her 20s surnamed Park told Yonhap that she and others were standing along the side of the alley while others were caught in the middle.
Police, who were restricting traffic in nearby areas to speed up the transportation of the injured to hospitals across the city, also confirmed that dozens of people were being given CPR on Itaewon streets. The Seoul Metropolitan Government issued emergency text messages urging people in the area to swiftly return home.
Some local media reports earlier said the crush happened after a large number of people rushed to an Itaewon bar after hearing an unidentified celebrity visited there.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered Prime Minister Han Duk-soo to oversee the accident management headquarters and speed up the process of identifying the victims, especially for the sake of the families waiting for their family members, according to Kim Eun-hye, senior secretary for public communications.
He also instructed the Health Ministry to swiftly deploy disaster medical assistance teams and secure beds in a nearby hospital to treat the injured.
A spokesperson for his office said earlier Sunday local time that the president was presiding over an emergency meeting at the presidential office’s crisis management center.
World leaders, including those from the United States, France, Canada, the U.K. and Germany, shared their condolences and words of support for South Korea, and wished the survivors a fast recovery.
“Jill and I send our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones in Seoul,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Saturday. “We grieve with the people of the Republic of Korea and send our best wishes for a quick recovery to all those who were injured.”
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a tweet that the U.S. stands ready to support the country.
Philip Goldberg, U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea, said he was “devastated by the tragic loss of life in Itaewon last night.”
“Please know my thoughts, and those of our team at U.S. Embassy Seoul, are with the Korean people and especially the loved ones of those who perished, as well as the many injured in this catastrophic incident,” Goldberg said in a statement.
U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted his support for Seoul in the wake of the event.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.
Julianne McShane reported from New York, and Stella Kim and Thomas Maresca from South Korea.