Seoul, South Korea — Worried parents rushed to hospitals in search of loved ones on Sunday as South Korea mourned the death of more than 150 people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who were trapped and crushed after A huge crowd of Halloween parties swept through a narrow alley in a nightlife district of Seoul.
Witnesses said Saturday night’s influx of crowds in the Itaewon area caused “hellish chaos” as people fell on top of each other “like dominoes”. Some people were bleeding from their noses and mouths during CPR, witnesses said, while others dressed in Halloween costumes continued to sing and dance nearby, perhaps unaware of the seriousness of the situation.
“I still can’t believe what happened. It was like hell,” said Kim Mi Sung, head of a nonprofit organization that promotes tourism in Itaewon.
Kim said she performed CPR on 10 unconscious people and nine of them were pronounced dead on the spot. Kim said the 10 were mostly women wearing witch outfits and other Halloween costumes.
The influx of crowds is the country’s worst disaster in years. On Sunday evening, authorities put the death toll at 153 and the number of injured at 133. The Interior and Security Ministry said the death toll could rise further as 37 of the injured were in serious condition .
Ninety-seven of the dead were women and 56 men. More than 80% of the dead are between the ages of 20 and 30, but at least four were teenagers.
At least 20 of the dead are foreigners from China, Russia, Iran and elsewhere. There is one American among the dead, the Interior Department said in a statement.
About 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon for the country’s biggest outdoor Halloween festivities since the start of the pandemic. The South Korean government has eased COVID-19 restrictions in recent months.
Witnesses said the streets were so densely packed with people and slow-moving vehicles that it was virtually impossible for rescue workers and ambulances to quickly reach the driveway near the Hamilton Hotel.
Authorities said thousands of people called or visited an office in the nearby town, reporting missing relatives and asking officials to confirm whether they were among those injured or dead after the crash.
Bodies of the dead were being kept at 42 hospitals in Seoul and neighboring Gyeonggi Province, according to the city of Seoul, which said it would ask crematoria to burn more bodies per day as part of procedural support plans. funeral.
About 100 businesses in the Hamilton Hotel area agreed to close their stores until Monday to reduce the number of revelers who would take to the streets on Halloween.
Although Halloween isn’t a traditional holiday in South Korea – where children rarely pull off tricks – it’s still a major attraction for young adults, and costume parties in bars and clubs are become extremely popular in recent years.
Itaewon, near where the former headquarters of US military forces in South Korea operated for decades before leaving the capital in 2018, is an expat-friendly neighborhood known for its trendy bars, clubs and restaurants . It’s the city’s top destination for Halloween.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol declared a week-long period of national mourning on Sunday and ordered flags at government buildings and public offices to be flown at half mast. In a televised address, Yoon said supporting the families of the victims, including their funeral preparations, and treating the injured would be a top priority for his government.
He also called on officials to thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident and review the security of other major cultural and entertainment events to ensure they are held safely.
“It’s truly devastating. The tragedy and disaster that shouldn’t have happened took place in the heart of Seoul in the middle of Halloween (celebrations),” Yoon said during his speech. “I have a heavy heart and cannot contain my sadness as the president responsible for people’s lives and safety.”
After the speech, Yoon visited Itaewon Alley where the disaster happened. Local TV footage showed Yoon inspecting the litter-filled driveway and being briefed by emergency officials.
It was not immediately clear what prompted the crowd to rush down the narrow, downhill alley. A survivor said many people fell and toppled “like dominoes” after being pushed by others.
The survivor, surnamed Kim, said he was trapped for about an hour and a half before being rescued, as some people shouted “Help me!” and others were out of breath, according to the Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper.
Another survivor, Lee Chang-kyu, said he saw about five or six men push others before one or two began to fall, according to the newspaper.
In an interview with YTN news channel, Hwang Min-hyeok, a visitor to Itaewon, said it was shocking to see rows of bodies near the hotel. He said rescuers were initially overwhelmed, leaving pedestrians struggling to administer CPR to injured people lying in the streets. People were crying next to the bodies of their friends, he said.
A man in his 20s said he avoided being stepped on by managing to enter a bar with an open door in the alley, Yonhap news agency reported. A woman in her twenties surnamed Park told Yonhap that she and others stood along the alley while others caught in the middle of the alley had no escape.
Choi Seong-beom, fire chief of Yongsan in Seoul, said the bodies were sent to hospitals or a gymnasium, where bereaved family members could identify them.
World leaders offered their condolences, including Pope Francis.
“We also pray to the Risen Lord for those – especially young people – who died last night in Seoul, due to the tragic consequences of a sudden crash,” Francis said after Sunday’s Angelus prayer on the St. Peter’s Square, inviting the crowd to pray. for the victims.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted that “all our thoughts are with those currently responding and with all South Koreans at this very distressing time.” Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, tweeted that the news of the disaster was “heartbreaking” and said Washington “stands ready to provide the Republic of Korea with all the support it needs”.
Among the 20 foreign dead, four are from China; three from Russia; two from Iran; and one each from Vietnam, Austria, Norway, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka and the United States. The Home Office said it was unaware of the nationalities of the other four foreigners.
Japan’s foreign ministry said two of its nationals were among the dead, while the French foreign ministry said a French national also died in the Itaewon tragedy.
South Korea’s latest deadly disaster has also hit young people the hardest. In April 2014, 304 people, mostly high school students, died in the sinking of a ferry. The sinking revealed lax safety rules and regulatory failures. It was partly blamed on excessive, loosely secured cargo and an ill-trained crew in emergency situations.
Saturday’s deaths will likely draw public attention to what government officials have been doing to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.
It was the deadliest landslide disaster in South Korea’s history. In 2005, 11 people were killed and around 60 others were injured at a pop concert in the southern town of Sangju.
In 1960, 31 people died after being crushed down the stairs of a train station as large crowds rushed to board a train during the Lunar New Year holiday.
It was also the second major disaster in a month in Asia. On October 1, Indonesian police fired tear gas at a football match, causing a crush that killed 132 people as spectators tried to flee.
More than 1,700 response personnel from across the country have been deployed to the streets to help the injured, including about 520 firefighters, 1,100 police and 70 government employees. The National Fire Agency said separately in a statement that authorities were still trying to determine the exact number of emergency patients.
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