The deadliest stampede in South Korea’s history happened Saturday night in a narrow four-meter-wide downhill alley near Hamilton Hotel in the famous nightlife district after tens of thousands of people visited the area for Halloween, Yonhap news agency reported.
The death toll could rise further, as 19 people sustained serious injuries, officials said.
The stampede marked the worst tragedy in South Korea since the 2014 sinking of the ferry Sewol that killed 304 people, mostly high school students.
It was the first Halloween event in Seoul in three years after the country lifted many COVID-19 restrictions. Most of the people on the streets were wearing Halloween costumes.
Of those killed, a majority of at least 97 were female, and observers said women took a bigger blow due mainly to their relatively smaller frame, combined with usually heavier Halloween costumes.
The number of foreigners killed rose to 22, according to the fire authorities.
They are four each from China and Iran; three from Russia; and one each from the United States, France, Australia, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Norway, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Austria, they said. The nationality of the last victim has not yet been identified.
However, the interior ministry put the number of foreign casualties at 20.
An explanation on the discrepancy was not immediately available.
Police have also launched an investigation to determine the exact cause of the accident.
Fire authorities initially received dozens of reports from people in the Itaewon area — home to expat communities with its hip nightlife and chic restaurants — about patients with breathing difficulties. The first report was made around 10:15 p.m.
Witnesses and survivors say a massive group of people surged into the back alley, and the stampede began “instantly” after some people fell over and caused others to fall down like “dominoes” and pile up on one another, unable to move or breathe.
The back alley in question is a downhill 4 meter-by-40 meter path that links a busy restaurant district with a main street, where about six adults can barely pass at the same time.
“People kept pushing down into a downhill club alley, resulting in other people screaming and falling down like dominos,” an unidentified witness wrote on Twitter. “I thought I would be crushed to death too as people kept pushing without realizing there were people falling down at the start of the stampede.”
Video footage showed rescue workers and ordinary people desperately conducting CPR on victims on the streets.
A sudden influx of about 300 patients needing CPR and other first-aid measures also left rescuers shorthanded, while heavy return-home traffic in the area added to the difficulties, according to witnesses.
President Yoon Suk-yeol addressed the nation live from the presidential office, saying Saturday’s “tragedy and disaster should never have happened.”
He also announced a period of national mourning and ordered the lowering of flags.
Prime Minister Han Duck-soo later told reporters the mourning period would last from Sunday until Saturday at Yoon’s instructions and that a mourning altar would be set up in downtown Seoul to allow people to pay tribute to the victims.
Han also announced Yonsan Ward, which includes Itaewon, will be designated as a special disaster area, where the family members of the victims will be awarded with compensation and funeral expenses. Medical costs of those injured will also be covered.
World leaders from U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to Mexican President Andres Manuel have sent messages of condolences and support to South Korea.
Biden expressed his “deepest condolences.”
“Jill and I send our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones in Seoul. We grieve with the people of the Republic of Korea and send our best wishes for a quick recovery to all those who were injured,” Biden said in a statement, referring to first lady Jill Biden.
“The Alliance between our two countries has never been more vibrant or more vital – and the ties between our people are stronger than ever. The United States stands with the Republic of Korea during this tragic time,” he said.
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