Bodies were pictured lining the streets in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district, while footage showed first responders and bystanders desperately providing CPR to unconscious victims in scenes described as “like a hell”.
Emergency officials said most of the dead were teenagers or adults in their 20s who had been caught up in a crowd surge as they celebrated Halloween for the first time in three years following the lifting of Covid restrictions.
Many of those caught up in the stampede suffered cardiac arrest, officials said.
Concerned relatives raced to hospitals in search of their loved ones on Sunday, with thousands of people said by authorities to have called or visited a city office to report individuals missing and establish whether they were among those injured or dead after the crush.
The bodies of the dead were being kept at 42 hospitals in the capital and nearby Gyeonggi province, according to Seoul City, which said it will tell crematoriums to burn more bodies per day to support funeral proceedings.
South Korea’s president Yoon Suk Yeol has declared a one-week national mourning period, and called for officials to thoroughly investigate the cause of the disaster and carry out reviews of the safety of other large events.
He visited the alley in Itaewon following a televised speech in which he pledged that supporting victims’ families, including with funeral preparations, would be a top priority for his government, adding: “This is really devastating.
“The tragedy and disaster that need not have happened took place in the heart of Seoul amid Halloween. I feel heavy-hearted and cannot contain my sadness as a president responsible for the people’s lives and safety.”
The crush happened when a densely packed crowd of mostly young people began surging forward in an alley near Hamilton Hotel, a major party spot in the Itaewon district popular for its nightlife, where an estimated 100,000 people had flocked to for Halloween festivities.
Witnesses described chaotic scenes moments before the stampede, with the police on hand in anticipation of the Halloween event struggling to control the crowds.
Social media footage showed hundreds of people packed in the narrow, sloped alley crushed and immobile as emergency officials and police tried to pull them free, with practically all available emergency workers in the capital sent to treat the injured.
But witnesses said the streets were so densely clogged with people and slow-moving vehicles that it had been nearly impossible for emergency workers to reach the alley.
One survivor said many people fell and toppled one another “like dominos” after they were pushed by others.
The survivor, whose surname was Kim, said they were trapped for about an hour-and-a-half before being rescued, as some people shouted “Help me!” and others were short of breath, according to the Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper.
Another survivor, Lee Chang-kyu, told the newspaper he saw about five or six men push others before one or two began falling.
“A person right next to me fell, but then people behind me continued to push me, then more people fell down and kind of piled up on one another,” a 30-year old graduate school student from Seoul told Reuters. “I screamed at people who were pushing me: ‘Don’t push! People fell!’”
She added: “I managed to escape. But if I’d stayed there just a few more minutes, then I would not have made it out, but would have died there.”
Moon Ju-young, 21, said there were clear signs of trouble in the alleys before the crush. “It was at least more than 10 times crowded than usual,” he said.
More than 400 emergency workers from around the country were sent to treat the injured. Ambulances lined up in the streets, police turned out in force and emergency workers moved the injured onto stretchers, while a makeshift morgue was set up in a building nearby.
The father of a woman in her 20s who died in the disaster said the city's preparations for the gatherings were inadequate.
“It was expected that there would be a crowd of 100,000 or more in the Itaewon area this weekend,” he told Reuters as he stood in a Seoul funeral home to collect his daughter’s body. I think there was no preparation for this, which led to this disaster.”
A makeshift morgue was set up in a building next to the scene and an investigation into the cause of the disaster is ongoing.
Among the dead were 97 women and 56 men. While the vast majority were in their 20s and 30s, at least four were teenagers. At least 24 foreign nationals from 14 different countries were killed in the crush, including China, Iran, Russia, the US, Australia, Uzbekistan, and France.
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak described what happened as horrific. “All our thoughts are with those currently responding and all South Koreans at this very distressing time,” he tweeted.
US president Joe Biden and his wife sent their condolences and wrote: “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 disaster is among the deadliest in South Korea since a 2014 ferry sinking that killed 304 people, mainly high school students.
It is the second major crushing incident in Asia in a month, with 132 people having died in a crush at a football match in Indonesia as they attempted to flee tear gas fired by police.