Most weekends, the narrow alleys of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district of Seoul, the South Korean capital, are packed with partygoers and tourists. Now it is one of the worst disasters in the country.
Thousands of people flocked to the area in central Seoul on Saturday night to celebrate Halloween — but panic erupted as the crowd swelled, and some witnesses said it became hard to breathe and move.
At least 151 people were killed in the crush and dozens more were injured. Authorities have now launched an urgent investigation into how a night that should have been celebrated went so horribly wrong, as families across the country mourned and searched for missing loved ones.
Here’s what we know so far.
Itaewon has long been a popular place to celebrate Halloween, especially as the festival has grown in popularity in Asia in recent years. Some even flew to Seoul from other countries in the region for the festivities.
But over the past two years, the festivities have been muted by the pandemic’s restrictions on crowd sizes and mask regulations.
Saturday night marked the country’s first Halloween since those restrictions were lifted — a special one for the many eager attendees in Seoul as well as for international visitors, including foreign residents and tourists.
Nearby hotels and ticketed events have been pre-booked and large crowds are expected.
Witnesses told CNN that there was little – if any – crowd control before the crowd turned deadly.
Videos and photos posted on social media showed people huddled together and standing side by side in narrow streets.
Crowds are not uncommon for residents of the region or Seoul, who are used to the crowded subways and streets of a city of nearly 10 million people.
One witness said it took some time for people to realise something was wrong, with panicked screams competing with music from surrounding clubs and bars.
After receiving the first emergency call at around 10.24pm, authorities rushed to the scene – but there were so many that it was difficult to reach those in need.
Videos posted on social media showed people pressing other party participants who were lying on the ground as they waited for medical attention.
Thousands of people dressed in Halloween costumes contributed to a general sense of chaos and confusion. An eyewitness described seeing a police officer yelling during the disaster – but some revellers mistook him for another partygoer.
The cause of the squeeze is still under investigation, although officials said there were no gas leaks or fires at the scene.
Authorities said the victims were all young, mostly in their teens and early twenties. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, Itaewon is popular with backpackers and international students.
Nineteen of the 151 dead were foreigners, and the victims were from Iran, Norway, China, Thailand and Uzbekistan, according to authorities.
South Korea’s Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min said on Sunday that more than 90 percent of the victims had been identified.
He added that about 10 people could not be identified because some were under 17 – too young to hold a national identity card – and some were foreigners.
Authorities in Seoul had received reports of 3,580 missing persons as of 2 p.m. local time Sunday, the city government said. That number could include multiple reports from the same person, or reports filed Saturday night for someone who was later discovered.
Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min said on Sunday that a “considerable” number of police and security forces had been dispatched to another part of Seoul on Saturday in response to the expected protests there.
Meanwhile, in Itaewon, the crowds were not particularly large, he said, so only a “normal” level of security forces were deployed there.
As the disaster unfolded Saturday night, more than 1,700 emergency response units were dispatched, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and about 70 government workers.
President Yoon Se-yeol called an emergency meeting to urge officials to identify the deceased as soon as possible.
But even hours later, families are still waiting to find out if their loved ones survived.
Immediately afterward, many were transferred to nearby facilities, while bodies were taken to multiple hospital morgues. Families gathered at a location near the scene where officials were collecting the names of the missing and the dead.
Yoon promised new measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again, saying that the government would “carry out urgent inspections of not only Halloween events but also local festivals and manage them thoroughly to proceed in an orderly and safe manner.”
The government will also provide psychological treatment and funds for the families of the dead and wounded. Authorities announced a nationwide period of mourning until November 5 and designated Yongsan District, where Itaewon is located, as a special disaster area.
This narrow street was the scene of a fatal incident in Seoul
As a country in shock and grief grapples with the tragedy, questions are also being raised about how such a disaster could have happened in a notoriously popular area where people congregate.
Juliette Kayem, CNN’s disaster management expert and national security analyst, said it’s difficult to pinpoint what triggered the overwhelming event — but authorities “would expect high numbers by Saturday night… …”.
“The onus is on the authorities to monitor crowd numbers in real time so they can feel the need to let people go,” she added.
Suah Cho, 23, was caught in the crowd but managed to escape into a building along the alley. When asked if she had seen any officials try to limit the number of people entering the hutong, she replied: “Before the incident, not at all.”
Another witness described the situation as “getting worse”, saying they could hear “people asking for help for other people because there aren’t enough rescuers to deal with it all.”