Seoul, South Korea
Most weekends, the narrow lanes of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, are packed with revelers and tourists. It is now the site of one of the country’s worst disasters.
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people swarmed the central Seoul area to celebrate Halloween – but panic erupted as the crowds grew, with some witnesses saying it had become difficult to breathe and unable to move.
At least 151 people were killed in the crash, with dozens more injured. Authorities have now launched an urgent investigation to find out how what was supposed to be a night of celebration went so horribly wrong, as families across the country grieve 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 become more popular in Asia in recent years. Some even arrive in Seoul from other countries in the region for the festivities.
But for the past two years, celebrations have been snuffed out by pandemic restrictions on crowd sizes and mask mandates.
Saturday night marked the first Halloween since the country lifted those restrictions — giving it special significance to many eager attendees in Seoul, as well as international visitors, including foreign residents and tourists.
Hotels and paid events in the area had been booked in advance and large crowds were expected.
Witnesses told CNN there was very little – if any – crowd control before the mass of people became deadly.
Videos and photos posted on social media show people huddled together, standing side by side in the narrow street.
Crowds are not unusual for this area, nor for Seoul residents, who are used to the crowded subways and streets of a city of nearly 10 million people.
An eyewitness said it took a while for people to realize something was wrong, with people’s panicky cries rivaling the deafening music from surrounding clubs and bars.
After the first emergency calls arrived around 10:24 p.m., authorities rushed to the scene – but the sheer volume of people made it difficult to reach those in need.
Video posted to social media showed people performing push-ups on other revelers lying on the ground waiting for medical assistance.
The thousands of people in Halloween costumes contributed to the widespread feeling of confusion and chaos. A witness described seeing a police officer screaming during the disaster – but some revelers mistook him for another reveler.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation, although officials said there were no gas leaks or fires at the site.
The victims were young, mostly teenagers and in their early 20s, authorities said. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, Itaewon is popular among backpackers and international students.
Among the 151 dead were 19 foreign nationals, including Iranian, Norwegian, Chinese, Thai and Uzbek victims, authorities said.
More than 90% of the victims have been identified, South Korean Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min said on Sunday.
He added that around 10 people cannot be identified because some are under 17 – too young to hold a national identity card – and others are foreign nationals.
As of 2 p.m. local time on Sunday, authorities in Seoul had received 3,580 missing person reports, the city government said. That number could include multiple reports for the same person, or reports filed Saturday night for people who have since been found.
Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min said on Sunday that “a huge number” of police and security forces were dispatched to another part of Seoul on Saturday in response to the expected protests.
Meanwhile in Itaewon, the crowds were not unusually large, he said, so only a “normal” level of security forces had been deployed there.
As the disaster unfolded on Saturday evening, more than 1,700 emergency response forces were dispatched, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and around 70 civil servants.
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 hear if their loved ones had survived.
Immediately after, many people were moved to nearby facilities, while the bodies were transported to several hospital morgues. Families gathered at sites near the scene, where officials were compiling the names of missing and deceased people.
Yoon vowed to implement new measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again, saying the government would “conduct emergency inspections not only for Halloween events but also for local festivals and manage them thoroughly to that they be conducted in an orderly and safe manner”.
The government will also provide psychological treatment and a fund for the families of those killed and injured. Authorities have declared a period of national mourning until Nov. 5 and designated Yongsan-gu district, where Itaewon is located, a special disaster area.
This narrow street was the scene of a deadly incident in Seoul
As a stunned and grieving nation grapples with the tragedy, questions are also emerging about how such a disaster could have unfolded in a popular area where people are known to congregate.
It’s difficult to determine what could have triggered the crush – but authorities “would have anticipated high numbers … before Saturday evening,” said Juliette Kayyem, disaster management expert and national security analyst for CNN.
“It is the responsibility of the authorities to monitor the crowd volume in real time, so that they can sense the need to get people out,” she added.
Suah Cho, 23, was caught in the crowd but managed to escape into a building along the alley. When asked if she had seen officials trying to limit the number of people entering the aisle, she replied: “Before the incident, not at all.”
Another eyewitness described the situation becoming “worse and worse”, saying they could hear “people asking for help for other people, because there were not enough rescuers able to deal with it all.”