At least 153 people, mostly women and young people in their 20s, have been killed in a chaotic stampede in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, after a huge crowd thronged a narrow street during Halloween celebrations.
Another 133 were hurt, 37 seriously, in the crowd crush that took place in the entertainment district of Itaewon on Saturday night.
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The incident happened at about 10pm local time (13:00 GMT) when large numbers of people flooded a narrow alley near the Hamilton Hotel, the Yonhap news agency reported, citing witnesses.
“The high number of casualties was the result of many being trampled during the Halloween event,” fire official Choi Seong-beom told reporters at the scene on Sunday, adding the death toll could climb.
Many of the victims were women and young people in their 20s, he said.
Nineteen foreigners were also killed, he said. They included people from Iran, Uzbekistan, China and Norway.
As of Sunday evening, officials put the death toll at 153 and the number of injured people at 133. The ministry of the interior and safety said the death count could further rise as 37 of the injured people were in serious condition.
Witnesses described chaotic scenes moments before the stampede, with the police on hand in anticipation of the Halloween event at times having trouble maintaining control of the crowds. Some were trapped for more than an hour before being pulled from the crush of people in the alley.
Moon Ju-young, 21, told the Reuters news agency there were clear signs of trouble in the alleys before the incident. “It was at least more than 10 times crowded than usual,” he said.
“There were so many people just being pushed around and I got caught in the crowd and I couldn’t get out at first too,” 30-year-old Jeon Ga-eul told the AFP news agency. “I felt like an accident was bound to happen.”
Police confirmed dozens of people were given cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on the streets, while others were taken to nearby hospitals.
‘Trampled and crushed’
It was the first Halloween event in Seoul in three years after the country lifted COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing. Many of the partygoers were wearing masks and Halloween costumes.
Footage on social media showed multiple people, both rescue officials and private citizens, simultaneously performing CPR on people lying scattered in the street. Videos showed dozens of people covered with blue plastic sheets at the roadside.
In an interview with local broadcaster YTN, Lee Beom-suk, a doctor who administered first aid to the victims, described scenes of tragedy and chaos.
“When I first attempted CPR there were two victims lying on the pavement. But the number exploded soon after, outnumbering first responders at the scene,” Lee said. “Many bystanders came to help us with CPR.”
“It’s hard to put in words to describe,” he added. “So many victims’ faces were pale. I could not catch their pulse or breath and many of them had a bloody nose. When I tried CPR, I also pumped blood out of their mouths.”
Al Jazeera’s Musun Kim, reporting from Seoul, said the area is usually crowded throughout the night on the weekends, but it was more packed than usual because of Halloween parties.
“[The] stampede happened in one small alley and a number of people started to fall down and got trapped, got trampled and crushed, with some losing consciousness,” he said.
The Seoul metropolitan government, which had issued emergency text messages urging those in the area to swiftly return home, said it has received reports of 355 missing people following the disaster.
Some local media reported the stampede occurred after a large group of people rushed to an Itaewon bar after hearing an unidentified celebrity visited there.
Authorities said they were investigating the exact cause of the incident. President Yoon Suk-yeol presided over an emergency meeting with senior aides and on Sunday declared a period of national mourning over the disaster.
“This is truly tragic,” Yoon said in a statement. “A tragedy and disaster that should not have happened took place in the heart of Seoul last night.”
US President Joe Biden and his wife sent their condolences and wrote: “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.”
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted: “All our thoughts are with those currently responding and all South Koreans at this very distressing time.”
The disaster is among the country’s deadliest since a 2014 ferry sinking that killed 304 people, mainly high school students.