An Australian survivor of the Halloween crowd crush in Seoul has told of how people filmed, sang and laughed while his friends were dying.
At least 154 people are believed to have died in the Itaewon stampede on Saturday, while 132 others are reported to have been injured, including 37 in serious condition, amid fears this number will rise in the coming days.
Those killed or hurt were mostly teenagers and people in their twenties, according to Choi Seong-beom, chief of Seoul‘s Yongsan fire department.
Among the 26 foreign nationals who died was film producer Grace Rached, 23, from Sydney, Australia, who has been described by her family as a “gorgeous angel” who lit up a room with her “infectious smile”.
Ms Rached had been holidaying in the South Korean capital and would have turned 24 next week.
In an emotional tribute to Ms Rached, and two other friends who were left in a critical condition following the incident, Nathan Taverniti spoke of what he called a “slow, agonising crush” that became the country’s worst disaster in years.
“I was there when she said she couldn’t breathe and I grabbed one of my friends’ hands,” Taverniti said, wiping away tears in a now-deleted TikTok video.
He went on to reject media reports which framed the crowd surge as a “stampede” which saw around 100,000 people gather in Itaewon for the country’s biggest Halloween celebration since the pandemic began.
“It was a slow, agonising crush. This crush was not caused by drunk people. It was lack of planning, police force and emergency services,” Taverniti said.
.“And nobody was willing to help. I watched as people filmed and sang and laughed while my friends were dying, along with many other people.
“I was there trying to pull people out because there was not enough police officers and nobody was doing anything to make the crowd stop.
“We were yelling, we were saying ‘you have to go back, you have to turn around, people are dying’, but nobody was listening.”
The horrifying incident was concentrated in a sloped, narrow alley in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district, with witnesses and survivors recalling a “hell-like” chaos with people falling on each other like dominoes.
They said the entire district was jammed with slow-moving vehicles and partygoers in Halloween costumes, making it impossible for rescuers and ambulances to reach the crammed alleys in time.
Taverniti said it took half an hour for police to arrive, another hour for reinforcements and even longer for other emergency services to get there.
“This is how long it took to free my friends. Two of my friends thankfully survived. But many, many others did not,” he said, adding that it took hours more to find his dead friend’s body.
“There were people lying on the ground getting CPR, not by health professionals, by random people, whoever could.
“I am sad. I am devastated by the situation which could have so easily been avoided, but nobody would listen.”
South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol called for safety measures over unorganised large gatherings during a meeting on Monday, his spokesman said, following the stampede.
The president also made Itaewon a disaster zone, and visited a memorial altar near the Seoul city hall to pay his respects to the victims.
Police said they’ve launched a 475-member task force to investigate the crush.
President Yoon on Sunday declared a one-week national mourning period and ordered flags at government buildings and public offices to fly at half-mast.