At least 150 people died Saturday night in a stampede of thousands of young people celebrating Halloween in the narrow streets of a popular neighborhood in central Seoul. The BBC analyzes how the tragedy unfolded.
By early Saturday afternoon, thousands of mostly young people had gathered in Itaewon, the center of the South Korean capital, a lively party spot whose warlike streets and alleys are lined with bars and restaurants.
According to some accounts, 100,000 people flocked to the area to celebrate Halloween, excited by the prospect of partying again after two years of strict covid restrictions in the country.
Nuhyil Ahammed, 32, was in the crowd. This IT worker from India lives nearby and has been attending Halloween parties in Itaewon for five years in a row.
Last year, the celebrations were lively but under control, with police preventing people from entering crowded areas. This year, things were very different, he said.
“It was crazy,” he told the BBC. “From 5 in the evening there were too many people on the streets. So I thought, what will happen after seven or eight?”
Around that time, messages were posted on social media with people saying the streets of the district they were so crowded that they felt unsafe.
Ahammed and a group of friends spent the afternoon in Itaewon, near the narrow, sloping alley off the main street of the district that was to become the main focus of the tragedy.
“We always go to this alley,” he commented. – I don’t know why, but there are always good bars and costumed people.
By 11 p.m. it was clear that something was wrong, and the worried Ahammed found himself swept away in a huge crowd of people.
“People started pushing from behind, it was like a wave, nothing could be done,” he recalled. – Even if you were standing, someone was pushing you from behind and in front.
Ahammed fell to the ground but managed to climb over the crowd and up some steps along the side of the alley.
It was around 22:20 local time (13:20 GMT) when the situation became dire. Several people who were on the slope fell, causing a great commotion. The crowd pressing in from both ends of the narrow street meant that no one could get out.
“People were suffocating, screaming… piling up… falling… there were too many people”said the 32-year-old.
“I was on the stairs watching everything that was happening, people taking their last breaths… I felt helpless watching those people suffocate.”
“We couldn’t do anything, that was the main trauma”
24-year-old Spaniard Ana was nearby with her friend Melissa, a 19-year-old German. The couple were in a bar and trying to leave at 11:00 p.m. local time (14:00 GMT) when they saw ambulances entering the alley and police pleading with people to move to make way for the bodies and wounded.
“There were so many people that they needed normal people for CPR. So the whole world he went helpAna told the BBC.
He also told how two friends who knew how to perform CPR came to his aid, but some people died at their hands.
Ana went to help as well, following the instructions she received.
“They told me how to hold their head and open their mouth and stuff like that. I was trying to help, but they were dead too. I have to say that all the people they brought in to do CPR, most of them weren’t breathing anymore so you couldn’t do anything do.”
“We couldn’t do anything, that was the main trauma”he added.
His words coincided with numerous videos taken at the scene showing dozens of people trying to perform CPR on the corpses that lined the street.
A BBC reporter at the scene said he saw several ambulances, thousands of people and many bodies covered in sheets. The ambulance was struggling to make its way through the crowd of people.
As is usually the case in such a swift tragedy, news of what happened came out little by little.
Initial reports said around 50 people had suffered cardiac arrest – a common cause of death during the stampede – but grim photos of body bags strewn across the streets made it clear that this was a bigger tragedy.
The first confirmed death toll was released at 02:30 local time (17:30 GMT). Authorities said 59 people were killed and another 150 injured. An hour later, the toll rose to 120 dead and 100 wounded, and continued to rise as the night wore on. soon to exceed 150.
Ahammed said that people in the area were still partying hours after the tragedy, and music was still being heard in some bars and clubs in the area. It is not clear whether these stores and their customers were aware of the seriousness of what was happening around them.
A few hours after the tragedy, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol called an emergency meeting and announced an investigation into the cause of the accident. On Sunday morning, he declared a period of national mourning.
“My heart is heavy and I can hardly bear my pain,” he said, adding that he feels “responsible for people’s lives and safety.”
On Sunday afternoons, the area around Itaewon is usually bustling with activity, but the day after the tragedy, many shops, restaurants and cafes were closed, and the main street in the area was closed. A local resident told the BBC that she was shocked to see body bags on the street.
As the country grapples with the tragedy, the focus will inevitably be on safety regulations and crowd control measures. People will wonder if more could have been done to prevent this tragedy.
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