South Korea is in a one-week shock mourning after the country’s citizens witnessed one of the worst disasters that happened overnight in years and caused the deaths of 154 people and leaving almost as many injured.
A night that was supposed to be a stress-free celebration of Halloween after two years of pandemic restrictions in the streets of Seoul led instead to a massive pile-up that prompted the country’s prime minister Han Duck-soo to announce a stringent probe into the night’s events.
The crush happened when a massive 100,000-plus crowd of revellers on Saturday flocked for festivities in the district of Itaewon in Seoul – a metropolis known for its tough living conditions and punishing, cramped living and public spaces for its residents.
Partygoers had thronged the district since the afternoon but, according to one eyewitness who spoke to the BBC, worrying signs were on display already.
“It was crazy. From 5pm there were too many people on the streets. So I was thinking, what’s it going to be like from seven or eight?” questioned 32-year-old Nuhyil Ahammed.
Around 10.20pm local time, crowds had surged to unsafe numbers and the situation turned dire when people on a slope fell over, leading to a crush that trapped people.
One survivor said many people fell and toppled one another “like dominos” after they were pushed by others.
By 11pm that night, Mr Ahammed said people were pushing others in front of them “live a wave”.
Late on Saturday, initial reports of the crush said about 50 people had suffered cardiac arrests.
But when more information started coming in, it was clear that the incident was much more serious.
One worrying eyewitness comparison likened the streets of Itaewon to “jammed subway stations”.
Police numbered to a paltry 137 officers, reported Reuters, and were unable to control the massive crowd.
“We arrived around 10pm to go to a club but then saw people falling on the street,” said Moon Ju-young, 21. “Some were bleeding, others were crying out in pain.”
One student from France, who asked not to be identified because of the trauma of the event, said he became lodged in a crush of people for about an hour and a half.
“I wanted to go to a safe place but it wasn’t possible,” he told the news agency. “I was just pushed by everyone and I just couldn’t do anything.”
The aftermath of the tragedy is such that several people are missing and their families, in growing desperation, are still combing through the streets with the hope of finding their loved ones two days after the event.
So far, there have been reports of 149 injuries, though this number, along with the deaths, could possibly increase.
Philomene Aby, a resident of Seoul whose 22-year-old son was missing, told Reuters she started asking workers at a South Korean community centre for news of her son.
She said of her son Masela, who works at a club in the Itaewon district: “I called his number but... he wasn’t answering.”
Local media reported that the Hannam-dong Community Service Centre in Seoul has become a makeshift missing persons facility in the wake of the tragedy.
After Ms Aby’s frantic search, her son returned home safely, but others were not so lucky.
At the missing persons facility, one person broke down and begged officials to help him find his family. The centre has received more than 1,000 telephone inquiries about the disaster daily.
Two American college students died in the crush as well.
One of them was Anna Gieske, 20, an American nursing student at the University of Kentucky who had been studying abroad in South Korea and recording her travels on Instagram.
“There aren’t adequate or appropriate words to describe the pain of a beautiful life cut short. It isn’t fair, nor is it comprehensible. It is loss and it hurts in ways that are impossible to articulate,” said university president Eli Capilouto in a statement to students and faculty on Sunday.
Steven Blesi, a 20-year-old student at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, was also killed in the disaster, according to his father Steve Blesi.
“Thank you for the outpouring of love. We need time to grieve,” said Mr Blesi Sr on Twitter on Sunday.
He recalled the excruciatingly painful call when he learned of his son’s death. “It was like it stabbed like a hundred million times simultaneously,” Mr Blesi told The New York Times. “It was like your world just collapsing. It was numb and devastating all at the same time.”
Meanwhile, South Korea’s interior minister Lee Sang-min told a briefing that it took more time to locate foreign nationals or teens who have yet to be registered with the government, in which case they have to directly check with the families.
A father said the news of his young daughter’s death from the crush “came like a bolt from the blue sky”. The father had to collect the body at a funeral home linked to a hospital in Seoul after receiving a call from authorities as late as 1am.
At this very corner, at first the person in front walked forward in a normal rhythm, but suddenly a squeal from the back forced everyone to shove down the slope.
#Itaewon #ITAEWONHALLOWEEN #SeoulStampede #prayforitaewon pic.twitter.com/hRIIMpRo3B
— Human (@proudlyhindus) October 31, 2022
An official at the funeral home said there were at least two bodies from the incident at the facility on Sunday. An official from the missing persons facility said “the families need to get this certificate from the police, then we can release the bodies to the families.”
“If the family would want to find out the cause of the death, then they could request an autopsy, but for these bodies, the cause of death seems pretty clear to me,” he added.
As reactions of shock and condolences poured in from the rest of the world, South Korean president Yoon Suk-Yeol declared a national mourning period.