South Korea is reeling after the deaths of as many as 154 people on Saturday during a crowd surge in Seoul’s nightlife district of Itaewon.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has declared a one-week national mourning period for the entire country.
Authorities say that about 130,000 people had come to enjoy the first maskless Halloween parties in the neighborhood’s many nightclubs since the pandemic — around 30,000 more than three years ago.
A sudden crowd surge slammed Halloween revelers on October 29 into a narrow alley, killing 154 people and injuring 149 more. Some of these injuries are critical, thus officials fear the death toll will continue to rise.
So far, two-thirds of those killed were women, more than 80% were in their 20s and 30s, and at least four were teenagers. Foreigners from China, Russia, Iran, and other countries account for at least 20 of those killed, according to reports from ABC News.
Two students from the U.S., Anne Gieske and Steven Blesi, were among the casualties reported.
A junior from Kennesaw State University, Blesi was eager to study international business and work in East Asia one day, according to his family.
Gieske had just turned 20 and was studying to be a nurse at the University of Kentucky.
Other victims native to South Korea include actor Lee Ji-han, who was 24 years old and best known for competing on the reality talent show Produce 101, and former cheerleader Kim Yu-na, who was also 24.
An investigation is currently underway to better understand what prompted the crowd to pour into the downhill alley in the Itaewon neighborhood on Saturday night. According to witnesses, people fell on each other “like dominoes,” and some victims were bleeding from their noses and mouths while receiving CPR.
Many partygoers appeared to be unaware of the disaster unfolding just steps away, according to witnesses. While others lay lifeless on the ground, some dressed in Halloween costumes continued to sing and dance nearby, ABC News reported.
Nathan Taverniti, a 24-year-old Australian on a trip to Seoul, was in Itaewon with three female companions. Instead of a night of fun, he explained on social media, “it ended with two of my friends in hospital and one passed away.” He described the scene as “a slow and agonising crush.”
“This crush was not caused by drunk people,” he continued. “It was lack of planning, police force and emergency services. Nobody was willing to help.”
There was also no law enforcement presence in Itaewon at the time of the incident, according to witnesses. The National Police Agency has since admitted fault by assigning 137 police officers to direct traffic and look out for crime rather than controlling the crowd.
Furthermore, the influx of patients requiring CPR overwhelmed local hospitals that fateful night. As local news outlets reported, one Seoul fire department official explained, “These weren’t mildly injured patients. They were CPR patients. There aren’t many hospitals that can accommodate dozens of such patients at once.”
South Korea remains very much in shock over the accident and memorials have flooded the scene.
“This is really devastating,” President Yoon said in a public address following the chaos. “The tragedy and disaster that need not have happened took place in the heart of Seoul amid Halloween. I feel heavy hearted and cannot contain my sadness as a president responsible for the people’s lives and safety.”