South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo has promised a thorough investigation into the Halloween crush over the weekend that killed more than 150 people in the capital and plunged the country into mourning.
Officials said on Monday the death toll had risen to 154, with 149 people injured, 33 of them in serious condition.
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Tens of thousands of people had crowded into the narrow streets and alleyways of Seoul’s popular Itaewon district on Saturday for the first major Halloween festivities since the COVID-19 pandemic struck three years ago.
Many of the revellers were in their teens and dressed in Halloween costumes.
But chaos erupted when people poured into one particularly narrow and sloping alley, even after it was already packed, witnesses said.
On Monday morning, people laid white chrysanthemums, drinks and candles outside an exit of the Itaewon metro station, a few steps away from the site of the crush.
“It doesn’t matter how they died, or why they died. Those poor people, all at similar ages to my grandchildren, they died anyway,” said Jung Si-hoon, a retiree and a church elder, who placed an old wooden cross at the makeshift altar.
“What more should we say? We should pray for them and wish they rest in peace.”
Shops and cafés nearby were closed, and police cordoned off the site of the tragedy as they continued their investigations.
Schools, kindergartens and companies around the country scrapped planned Halloween events. K-pop concerts and government briefings were also cancelled.
“The government will undertake a thorough investigation into what caused this accident and do its best to make necessary institutional changes so that such an accident is not repeated,” Prime Minister Han said as government officials met on the disaster.
“Identification has been completed for all of the 154 deceased except one, and I believe it is time for follow-up measures such as funeral procedures to be carried out in earnest,” Han said. “We will do our best to provide necessary support by reflecting the opinions of the bereaved families as much as possible.”
President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has declared a period of national mourning and designated Itaewon a disaster zone, visited a memorial altar outside the Seoul city hall with his wife on Monday to pay his respects to those who died. Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was also among those expressing their condolences.
The crush of partygoers came as Itaewon, a symbol of freewheeling nightlife in the South Korean capital for decades, was beginning to recover from prolonged pandemic restrictions with new restaurants and shops opening.
The disaster is the worst in South Korea since the Sewol ferry sank in 2014, killing 304 people, most of them high school students.
The sinking of the Sewol and criticism of the official response sent shockwaves across South Korea, prompting widespread soul-searching over safety measures that are likely to be renewed in the wake of Saturday’s crush.