Es should be cheerful Halloween celebrations in Seoul after the end of the corona restrictions. But by the end of the night, at least 153 people had died, crushed in a mass rush down a narrow alley in Itaewon, one of the South Korean capital’s most popular nightlife districts, home to numerous bars, restaurants and clubs. At least 20 foreigners are among the dead. More than 80 people were injured, more than a dozen seriously. Authorities warned that the death toll could still rise.
On Sunday morning, as South Koreans realized the full extent of the disaster, President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered a week-long period of national mourning. “Such a tragedy, such a disaster should never have happened in the heart of Seoul,” Yoon said. He offered his condolences to the families of the dead and wished the injured a speedy recovery. While relatives searched for missing people in hospitals and morgues, representatives of the government and the opposition immediately signaled a willingness to provide financial support to the victims’ families.
The tragedy began after 10 p.m
In the Itaewon nightlife district, which is also popular with foreigners, an estimated tens of thousands of people gathered on Sunday night to celebrate Halloween in costumes and with friends. The tragedy began after 10 p.m. as more and more party-goers crowded down a sloping alley about four meters wide and about 40 meters long. Eyewitnesses reported the onslaught was so strong that nobody was able to move. People fell to the ground and couldn’t breathe in the narrow space. “People fell like dominoes and fell on top of each other,” said one survivor. The loud music drowned out the screams of the victims. Another eyewitness reported that the victims lay on top of each other “like in a grave”.
Most of the dead were older teenagers or in their 20s or 30s. As of Sunday evening, not all of the victims had been identified. Among the at least 20 foreigners who died were people from China, Iran and Russia, from America, France and Uzbekistan. A large contingent of fire brigades, ambulances and police had difficulties getting through to the scene of the accident because of the crowds celebrating. About 300 people, according to the South Korean media, were given emergency ventilation at the scene of the accident.
While some eyewitnesses reported a great willingness to help, others complained that some shops or bars would not let anyone in, so the rush was not alleviated. President Yoon ordered a detailed investigation to prevent such mass panics at similar major events in the future. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon will cut short his trip to Europe after the tragedy and return to the city. Halloween celebrations and other major events in South Korea have been canceled.
It is the country’s worst tragedy since 2014, when the Sewol ferry went down. At least 304 people died then, most of them school children. The Sewol disaster and the government’s response to it, which was criticized as inadequate, increased displeasure with then-President Park Geun-hye, who was later deposed after mass protests. The current tragedy is another setback for the current President Yoon, who has been in office less than a year and is trying to combat a rapidly declining public confidence.
The Halloween festival comes from ancient Celtic customs to drive away evil spirits at the beginning of the dark season. In its commercialized version, with hollowed-out pumpkins and childish masquerade, Halloween later spread from the United States to the world. In South Korea, as in neighboring Japan, young people usually celebrate Halloween in costumes on the streets of popular nightlife districts. Typically, many partygoers are dressed up as skeletons, vampires or ghosts, a rudimentary reminder of the festival’s religious origins. Halloween is actually celebrated on the eve of All Saints’ Day on November 1st. In South Korea or Japan, however, many festivities took place at the weekend. Halloween in both countries is also becoming an attraction for foreign tourists.
The catastrophe also caused consternation and horror abroad. “The tragic events in Seoul shock us deeply,” wrote Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) on the short message service Twitter. “Our thoughts are with the many victims and their families.” Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida offered his condolences on behalf of the Japanese people. Kishida said he was deeply saddened and prayed for the speedy recovery of the injured. US President Joe Biden said the United States stands with South Korea at this tragic time.