(CNN) — Almost every weekend, the narrow streets of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district of the South Korean capital, Seoul, are packed with partygoers and tourists. It is now the site of one of the country’s worst disasters.
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people flocked to an area in central Seoul to celebrate Halloween, but panic broke out as the crowd swelled, with some witnesses saying it became difficult to breathe and impossible to move.
At least 156 people died in the stampede and dozens were injured, according to the country’s Ministry of Interior and Security. Among the dead were 20 foreign nationals, according to the authorities. The ministry said it could not verify nationality.
Authorities have launched an emergency investigation to find out how what should have been a night of celebration went so wrong, as families across the country mourn and search for their missing loved ones.
That’s what we know so far.
Why were there so many crowds?
Itaewon has long been a popular place to celebrate Halloween, especially as the holiday has become more popular in Asia in recent years. Some even fly to Seoul from other countries in the region for the ceremony.
But for the past two years, the celebrations have been affected by pandemic restrictions on the number of people and mask orders.
Saturday night marked the first Halloween since the country lifted these restrictions, giving it special significance for many enthusiastic participants in Seoul, as well as international visitors, including foreign residents and tourists.
Hotels and ticketed events in the district were booked well in advance and large crowds were expected.
Witnesses told CNN there was little, if any, crowd control before the mass of people turned deadly.
Videos and photos posted on social media show people huddled together, standing shoulder to shoulder in a narrow street.
Crowds are not uncommon in the area, and for Seoul residents who are used to crowded subways and streets in a city of nearly 10 million people.
One witness said that it took a while for people to realize that something was wrong, while people’s panicked screams competed with loud music from nearby clubs and bars.
After the first emergency calls came in around 10:24 p.m., authorities rushed to the scene, but the large number of people made it difficult to reach those who needed help.
Videos posted on social media show people performing chest compressions on other partygoers who are lying on the ground while waiting for medical help.
Adding to the general sense of confusion and chaos were thousands of people dressed up for Halloween. One witness described seeing a police officer screaming during the disaster, but some revelers mistook him for another partygoer.
The cause of the accident is still under investigation, although authorities said there was no gas leak or fire at the scene.
Who were the victims?
The victims were young, mostly in their teens and 20s, according to authorities. Known for its nightlife and trendy restaurants, Itaewon is popular with backpackers and international students.
Among the 151 dead were 19 foreign nationals, some from the United States, Iran, Norway, China, Thailand and Uzbekistan, according to authorities.
More than 90 percent of the victims have been identified, South Korean Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min said Sunday.
He added that about 10 people cannot be identified because some are under 17 years old, too young for an identity card, and others are foreigners.
By 2 p.m. local time on Sunday, authorities in Seoul had received 3,580 missing person reports, according to the city administration. That number could include multiple reports for the same person or reports filed Saturday night for people who have since been found.
What was the official response?
Lee Sang-min, the minister of internal affairs and security, said on Sunday that a “substantial number” of police and security forces had been sent to another part of Seoul on Saturday in response to expected protests there.
Meanwhile, Itaewon was not unusually crowded, 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 forces were dispatched, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and about 70 civil servants.
President Yoon Suk Yeol called an emergency meeting and urged officials to identify the dead as soon as possible.
But even hours later, families were still waiting to hear if their loved ones had survived.
Immediately after that, a large number of people were taken to nearby facilities, while the bodies were taken to hospital morgues. Families gathered in places near the accident site, where officials collected the names of the missing and deceased.
Yoon vowed to implement new measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again, saying the government “will carry out urgent inspections not only for Halloween events, but also for local festivals and thoroughly manage them so that they are conducted in an orderly and safe manner. ” .
The government will also provide psychological treatment and a fund for the families of the dead and injured. Authorities declared a period of national mourning until November 5 and designated the Yongsan-gu district, where Itaewon is located, as a special disaster area.
Questions that are asked
As a stunned and grieving nation grapples with the tragedy, questions are being asked about how such a disaster could have happened in a popular area where people are known to congregate.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what may have caused the rush, but authorities “were expecting big numbers … before Saturday night,” said Juliette Kayyem, a disaster management expert and national security analyst for CNN.
“The authorities have a responsibility to monitor the amount of crowding in real time, so they can feel the need to evict people,” he added.
Suah Cho, 23, was caught in the stampede but managed to escape into a building along an alley. When asked if he saw officers trying to limit the number of people entering the alley, he replied: “Before the incident, not at all.”
Another eyewitness described the situation as “getting worse and worse”, saying they could hear “people calling for help for other people, because there weren’t enough rescuers to deal with it all”.