South Korean authorities are investigating a stampede that killed at least 154 people in Seoul, as the restive nation tries to come to terms with one of the worst disasters in its history.
The country has begun a week-long period of mourning while officials try to figure out how the devastating attack happened.
Among the dead are at least 26 foreigners, including two American citizens. More than a dozen embassies around the world confirmed the victims from their countries.
The reason for Saturday’s surge is unclear, but witnesses say partygoers crowded the narrow streets of the capital’s Itaewon nightlife district as people enjoyed their first Halloween weekend since the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.
Almost all the victims – at least 150 people – have been identified; police told CNN. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Security of South Korea reported that the number of victims was 56 men and 97 women.
South Korea’s Ministry of Education said on Monday that six schoolchildren, including one in high school, were among the dead. Three teachers also died.
The ministry said that by 17:00 local time on Sunday (4:00 a.m. Dushanbe time), the number of injured people had reached 133, of which 37 people were seriously injured.
Emily Farmer, a 27-year-old English teacher in Seoul who was passing through Itaewon, told CNN: “There were rows and rows of people on the street covered with tarps.”
The farmer and his friends were “fed up” with the crowd on the street and decided to enter the bar. Soon rumors spread that someone had died and patrons were not allowed to leave. The farmer said he received an emergency message from the government warning them of the “dangerous situation in the area” and was then allowed to leave the bar when he discovered the scale of the tragedy.
“It was scary,” he said. “Not everyone died right away.” Groups of people were crying, he added. Many of the victims received CPR and had their clothes removed so paramedics could revive them at the scene. “They were still turning people out because it was so crowded,” he said.
Another eyewitness, Sung Sehyun, told CNN that the street atmosphere was like a “congested metro” on Saturday evening, with Halloween revelers packed so tightly that it was difficult to move.
Suah Cho added that people started pushing and shoving and there was a lot of shouting. He eventually managed to take a detour and run to safety, but saw people climbing buildings to survive. He added that the clothes people were wearing added to the confusion; “There was also a police officer yelling, but we couldn’t really tell (if it was) a police officer because there were so many people in suits.”
Witnesses told CNN that there was very little crowd control before the massacre.
Videos and photos posted on social media show people standing shoulder to shoulder on the narrow street.
Crowds are not unusual for the area, or for Seoul residents who are used to the crowded subways and streets of a city of nearly 10 million people.
After the first emergency calls came in around 10:24 p.m., authorities rushed to the scene — but the sheer number of people made it difficult to reach those in need. A video posted on social media shows people lying on the ground squeezing other partygoers as they wait for medical help.
A number of countries, including the US, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway and France, have confirmed that their citizens are among the victims.
A University of Kentucky nursing student was among the dead, according to a statement from University President Eli Capiluto. Ann Giske, a junior from Northern Kentucky, was studying abroad in Seoul this semester, Capiluto said.
An official of the Korean Ministry of Defense told CNN that three South Korean soldiers were among the dead.
South Korean Prime Minister Han Dak-soo said in a briefing that the South Korean government has set a period of national mourning until the end of November 5.
During the mourning period, all government agencies and diplomatic offices will fly flags at half-staff, Han said, adding that all urgent events would be postponed.
Han said civil servants and employees of government institutions wear ribbons to express condolences during the mourning period.