Seoul, South Korea (CNN) — South Korea’s first big Halloween celebration since the end of Covid restrictions turned to tragedy on Saturday night, when at least 151 people, mostly teenagers and young adults, died as partygoers surged through a narrow alley in a popular nightlife district in Seoul, officials said.
Authorities are still investigating what caused the incident, but Choi Seong-bum, chief of the Yongsan-gu Fire Department, said it was a “presumed stampede” and that many people fell, injuring at least 82.
The dead included at least 19 foreign nationals, including people from Iran, Norway, China and Uzbekistan, he said.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol convened an emergency meeting in the early hours of Sunday, and later visited the scene to receive briefings from emergency officials.
Addressing the nation, he called a national period of mourning “until the handling of the accident is concluded.”
“A tragedy that should not have happened occurred in the middle of Seoul last night on Halloween,” Yoon said. “I pray for those who died in an unexpected accident and hope that the injured will recover quickly.”
Tens of thousands of revelers had poured into the Itaewon nightclub district on Saturday night to enjoy South Korea’s first Halloween celebration since crowd limits and face mask rules imposed by the Covid pandemic were lifted.
Witnesses said that even before the chaos broke out, partygoers were packed so tightly in the narrow streets that it was difficult to move around.
“I saw people going to the left side and I saw the person getting to the opposite side. So, the person in the middle got jammed, so they had no way to communicate, they could not breathe,” Witness Sung Sehyun told CNN. He said the space was like a “jammed subway.”
Video posted to social media showed people performing compressions on other partygoers lying on the ground as they waited for medical help.
“We saw a scene from a movie… like things happening during a war,” witness Park Jung-Hoon, 21, told Reuters. “They were doing CPR here and there and people were rushing in as nothing was being controlled. It was completely out of control.”
Authorities received the first reports of people “buried” in crowds around 10:24 p.m. on Saturday night.
Yonhap News Agency reported that some people had suffered from “cardiac arrest,” attributing the statement to fire authorities. Emergency officials assisted at least 81 people in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood reporting “difficulty breathing.” But early suggestions of a gas leak or fire were discounted.
Police closed off the area and social media videos showed people wearing Halloween costumes lying in the streets and on stretchers as first responders rendered aid and queues of ambulances formed to take away the injured.
Dozens of people were transferred to nearby facilities, said Choi Jae-won, the head of Yongsan Health Center. The bodies of the victims were transferred to multiple hospital mortuaries, authorities added.
The Seoul city government received reports of missing people as friends and families searched for people known to be at the event who didn’t come home.
On Sunday, police officers scanned the sidewalk for personal belongings and pieces of identification as they tried to determine the final number of injured and dead.
Foreign nationals among the dead
People fly into Seoul from all over Asia to celebrate Halloween in Itaewon, and this year’s event was seen as a welcome return of festivities after the pandemic. Hotels and ticketed events in the neighborhood had been booked solid ahead and large crowds were expected.
However, before midnight, celebrations took a dark turn, as the first calls for help were made from within the crowd.
Witness Sung said he had to push his way through the throng earlier in the night to get clear of the busy streets. “I was lucky to get through (but an) hour later, I heard people got killed. Because people got stamped on … and people got jammed together.”
The disaster prompted a massive response of South Korean emergency workers. More than 1,700emergency response forces were dispatched, including 517 firefighters, 1,100 police officials, and about 70 government workers.
The US State Department said a US citizen was injured in the crush. “We are working with local authorities to determine if any additional US citizens were affected and stand ready to provide consular assistance,” the State Department official said.
In the early hours of Sunday, President Yoon held an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Han Duck-soo and ordered Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min to begin an investigation into the cause of the incident, according to Senior Presidential Secretary for Public Relations Kim Eun-hye.
Yoon also ordered authorities to “rapidly” identify the victims for the sake of worried families, Kim said.
Around the world, leaders sent their condolences to South Korea and those affected by the disaster.
“Jill and I send our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones in Seoul,” US President Joe Biden wrote in a statement. “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.”
The United States government is ready to provide South Korea with “any support it needs,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan wrote on Twitter Saturday.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted: “All our thoughts are with those currently responding and all South Koreans at this very distressing time.” In tweet written in French and Korean, President Emmanuel Macron said “France is by your side.”
Itaewon, once shunned by locals as a seedy, red light district, has transformed into one of Seoul’s top party venues. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, the neighborhood comes to life at night such as this Seoul Halloween festivities.
It is also home to Seoul’s thriving Muslim and gay communities, and is located near a US army base.