SEOUL — Shocked families collected bodies, parents searched for children, and the country demanded answers on Sunday.
President Yoon Suk-yeol has declared a nationwide period of mourning after Saturday night’s disaster, designating Seoul’s popular Itaewon district as a disaster zone.
“This news was like a bolt out of the blue sky,” said a tearful father as he took his daughter’s body from the morgue in the country’s capital.
At least 153 people, mostly in their 20s, died as a large crowd celebrating in Itaewon stormed an alleyway, emergency officials said.
Teenagers and party-goers in Halloween costumes were ready to enjoy the bars, nightclubs and restaurants.
Instead, the streets were filled with people screaming for help as paramedics frantically freed trapped bodies and attempted to perform CPR on those strewn across the debris-strewn ground.
Yongsan Fire Station Chief Choi Sung-beom said at a briefing at the scene that 82 people were injured, 19 of them seriously. The dead included 22 foreigners, he said.
Family and friends desperately sought the words of their loved ones in community centers that had been turned into homes for the missing.
At least 90% of the victims had been identified by noon, the interior ministry said, with delays affecting some foreigners and teenagers who do not yet have ID cards. .
Makeshift memorials began appearing near the scene, with onlookers leaving flowers and notes.
President Yoon offered his condolences to the victims and wished a speedy recovery to the many injured in one of South Korea’s worst disasters in decades and the world’s deadliest stampede.
“This is truly tragic,” he said in a statement, pledging to investigate the cause of the disaster.
chaos and chaos
South Korean tech and mobile game companies such as Kakao and NCSOFT canceled Halloween promotions after the tragedy, and Everland amusement park canceled its Halloween-themed events. Many local governments and organizations have canceled or scaled down festivals and other celebrations.
Itaewon has been the epitome of the South Korean capital’s bohemian nightlife for decades, and after more than two years of COVID-19 restrictions, trendy restaurants and shops have replaced shady establishments to thrive. had just started.
It was the first Halloween event in three years in Seoul, where COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing are practically absent. Many of the party-goers wore masks and Halloween costumes.
There were already warning signs 24 hours ago that the festival was attracting dangerous numbers of people, with victims and their relatives questioning the apparent lack of crowd control. rice field.
Costumes and personal effects were splattered with blood in the narrow streets early Sunday morning.
Choi said many of the dead were near nightclubs. The foreigners killed included those from China, Iran, Uzbekistan and Norway, he said.
Witnesses described the crowd becoming increasingly unruly and agitated as the night wore on. Witnesses said there was chaos just before the stampede at 10:20 pm (1320 GMT), and police had trouble controlling the crowd as they waited for the event.
Moon Ju-young, 21, said there were obvious signs of trouble in the alley before the incident. He told Reuters that there were ten times more people than usual.
Social media footage showed hundreds of people squashed and stuck in narrow, sloping alleyways as emergency officials and police tried to free them.
Choi, the Yongsan district fire chief, said all fatalities were likely due to crushing in the alleys.
Fire officials and witnesses said people continued to rush into the alleyway even after it was already crammed to the wall, with people at the top of the slope falling and those at the bottom knocking over others.
One woman said her daughter escaped the crowd and survived after being trapped for over an hour.
A makeshift morgue was set up in a building next to the scene. Reuters eyewitnesses said about 40 bodies were removed on stretchers and moved to a government facility to identify victims.
The Itaewon district, popular with young South Koreans and foreigners alike, saw dozens of bars and restaurants packed to capacity for Halloween on Saturday as business plummeted during the three-year pandemic. rice field.
“There will be huge crowds at Christmas and fireworks… but this was dozens of times bigger than that,” 21-year-old Park Jong-hoon told Reuters from the scene.
International leaders, including US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, expressed their condolences.
Bar and restaurant curfews and the 10-person limit for private gatherings were lifted in April as the COVID-19 pandemic eased. The requirement to wear a mask outdoors was lifted for him in May.
President Yoon held an emergency meeting with the chief of staff and ordered them to secure resources to treat the wounded and set up a task force to thoroughly investigate the causes of the disaster.
The disaster is the country’s deadliest since the 2014 ferry sinking that killed 304 people, mostly high school students.
Criticism of the sinking of the Sewol ferry and the official response have sent shockwaves across South Korea and prompted widespread soul-searching about domestic security measures likely to be renewed in the wake of Saturday’s clashes.
By Soo-hyang Choi, Daewoung Kim, Hongji Kim