Seoul, South Korea
On most weekends, the narrow streets of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district of South Korea’s capital Seoul, are busy with partygoers and tourists. It is now the site of one of the country’s worst disasters.
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people flooded the central area of Seoul to celebrate Halloween – but panic broke out as the crowds grew, with some witnesses saying it became difficult to breathe and impossible to move.
By Sunday, the death toll had risen to 154, with dozens more injured. Authorities have now launched an urgent investigation to find out how what should have been a night of celebration went so horribly wrong as families across the country mourn 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 fly to Seoul from other countries in the region for the festivities.
But in the past two years, celebrations have been muted by pandemic restrictions on crowd sizes and mask mandates.
Saturday night marked the first Halloween since the country lifted those restrictions – giving it special meaning for many eager revelers in Seoul, as well as international visitors, including foreign residents and tourists.
Hotels and tickets to events in the neighborhood were booked in advance and large crowds were expected.
Witnesses told CNN there was very little — if any — crowd control before the mass of people turned deadly.
Videos and photos posted on social media showed people crammed together, standing side by side on the narrow street.
Crowds are not unusual for this area or for Seoul residents, who are used to crowded subways and streets in a city of almost 10 million people.
One witness said it took some time before people realized something was wrong, with people’s panicked screams competing with the music blaring from nearby clubs and bars.
After the first emergency calls were received around 10:24 p.m., authorities rushed to the scene, but the sheer volume of people made it difficult to reach those who needed help.
A video posted on social media shows people performing compressions on other partygoers lying on the ground while waiting for medical help.
The thousands of people in Halloween costumes added to the widespread sense of confusion and chaos. One witness described seeing a police officer screaming during the disaster – but some revelers mistook him for another partygoer.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation, although officials said there were no gas leaks or fires at the scene.
The victims were young, mostly in their teens and early 20s, authorities said. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, Itaewon is popular with backpackers and international students.
Among the 154 dead were at least 26 foreign nationals, authorities said, with victims from countries including the United States, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway, France, Russia, Austria, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
All but one of the victims have been identified, South Korean Prime Minister Han Dak-soo said at a briefing on Monday. The victims included 56 men and 97 women, South Korea’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Security said.
South Korea’s education ministry said Monday that six students were among the dead, including one at a middle school. Three teachers also died.
As of 5 p.m. local time Sunday (4 a.m. ET), the number of injured had risen to 133, of which 37 were seriously injured, the ministry said.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government said it had received reports of more than 4,000 missing people. This number may include multiple reports of the same person or reports filed on Saturday night for people who have since been located.
Police said there was no active search for the missing persons as they believed no one was missing from the scene; rather, they said missing persons reports were used to help identify those who had died.
Lee Sang-min, Minister of Internal Affairs and Security, said on Sunday that a “significant number” of police and security forces had been sent to another part of Seoul on Saturday in response to expected protests there.
In Itaewon, meanwhile, the crowd was not unusually large, he said, so only a “normal” level of security forces were deployed there.
As the disaster unfolded Saturday night, more than 1,700 emergency response forces were dispatched, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and about 70 government officials.
President Yoon Suk-yeol called an emergency meeting and urged authorities to identify the dead as soon as possible.
But even hours later, families were still waiting to find out if their loved ones had survived.
Immediately afterward, many people were transferred to nearby facilities, while bodies were taken to multiple hospital morgues. Families gathered near the scene where officials were collecting the names of the missing and the dead.
Yoon promised to implement new measures to prevent such incidents from happening again, saying the government would “carry out urgent inspections not only for Halloween events, but also for local festivals and thoroughly manage them so that they are held in accordance organized and safe way’.
The government will also provide psychological treatment and a fund for the families of the dead and injured. Authorities declared a period of national mourning until November 5 and designated the Yongsan-gu district, where Itaewon is located, as a special disaster zone.
As a stunned and grieving nation grapples with the tragedy, questions are also being raised about how such a disaster could play out in a popular place where people are known to gather.
It’s hard to determine what may have caused the crash, but authorities “would have expected big numbers … before Saturday night,” Juliet Kayem, a disaster management expert and national security analyst for CNN, said.
“There is a responsibility on the part of the authorities to monitor the volume of the crowd in real time so that they feel the need to bring people out,” she added.
Sua Cho, 23, was caught in the crowd but managed to escape to a building along the alley. When asked if she had seen officers try to limit the number of people entering the alley, she said: “Before the incident, not at all.”
Another eyewitness described the situation as getting “worse and worse”, saying they could hear “people asking for help for other people because there aren’t enough rescuers to deal with it all”.