Seoul, South Korea
On most weekends, the narrow alleyways of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, are bustling with partygoers and tourists. Now it is one of the country’s worst disasters.
Tens of thousands of people flocked to an area in central Seoul on Saturday night to celebrate Halloween, but as the crowd grew, panic broke out, with some witnesses reporting difficulty breathing and being unable to move.
More than 150 people died and dozens were injured in the accident. As families across the country mourn and search for missing loved ones, authorities have launched an urgent investigation into how the holiday night went wrong.
Here’s what we already know.
Itaewon has long been a popular place to celebrate Halloween, especially as the holiday has become popular in Asia in recent years. Some even fly to Seoul from other countries for the holiday.
But in the past two years, the celebrations have been shut down by pandemic restrictions on crowd sizes and mask mandates.
Saturday night marked the first Halloween since the country lifted those restrictions – a special event for many revelers in Seoul as well as international visitors, including foreign residents and tourists.
Hotels in the neighborhood and ticketed events were booked well in advance, and crowds were expected.
Witnesses told CNN there was very little crowd control before the crowd turned deadly.
In videos and photos posted on social media, people can be seen standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a narrow street.
Crowds are not unusual for the area, or for Seoul residents who are used to gridlocked subways and streets in a city 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 911 calls came in around 10:24 p.m., authorities rushed to the scene, but the crowd made it difficult to reach those in need.
In a video posted on social media, people can be seen applying compresses to other guests who are waiting for medical help.
Thousands of people dressed in Halloween costumes contributed to the widespread chaos and disorder. One witness described seeing a police officer screaming at the time of the crash, but some revelers thought he was another partygoer.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation, but officials said there was no gas leak or fire at the scene.
Authorities say the dead are young people, mostly teenagers and in their early 20s. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, Itaewon is popular with backpackers and international students.
Authorities said at least 26 foreign nationals were among the 154 dead, with victims coming from the United States, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway and France.
Almost all of the victims – at least 150 – have been identified; police told CNN. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Security, 56 of the victims were men and 97 were women.
As of 5:00 p.m. local time (4:00 a.m. ET) on Sunday, the number of injured had risen to 133, including 37 serious injuries, the ministry said.
As of 2:00 p.m. local time on Sunday, Seoul authorities had received reports of 3,580 missing people, the city said. This number may include multiple reports for the same person, or reports filed on Saturday night for people who have since been found.
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 in response to protests expected there on Saturday.
At the same time, Itaewon was not unusually crowded, 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 officials, were dispatched when the disaster began on Saturday night.
President Yoon Suk-yeol called an emergency meeting and urged officials to identify the dead as soon as possible.
But a few hours later, families were still waiting to find out if their loved ones had survived.
Immediately afterwards, many people were taken to nearby institutions, and the bodies were taken to several hospital morgues. Families gathered near the scene, and officials were recording the names of the missing and the dead.
Yun vowed to implement new measures to prevent such incidents from happening again, saying the government would “conduct urgent inspections not only for Halloween events, but also for local festivals, and carefully manage them to ensure orderly and safe events.”
Also, the state provides psychological treatment, and funds are allocated to the families of the dead and injured. Authorities declared a national day of mourning until Nov. 5 and declared Yongsan-gu, where Itaewon is located, a special disaster area.
This narrow street was the scene of a fatal incident in Seoul
As a shocked and grieving nation grapples with the tragedy, questions are also being raised about how such an accident could happen in such a popular area.
It’s hard to say exactly what caused the disaster, but authorities “expected a large number Saturday night,” said CNN disaster management expert and national security analyst Juliette Kayem.
“It is the responsibility of the authorities to monitor the population in real time, so 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 in the alley. Asked if he had seen officials try to limit the number of people entering the alley, he said: “Not at all, before the incident.”
Another eyewitness described the situation as “getting worse and worse” and said they could “hear people calling for help for other people because there are not enough rescuers to deal with it all”.