Most weekends, the narrow alleys of Itaewon, the neon-lit nightlife district in South Korea’s capital Seoul, are busy with partygoers and tourists. Now it’s the site of one of the country’s worst disasters.
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people flooded into the area in central Seoul to celebrate Halloween – but panic erupted as the crowds swelled, with some witnesses saying it became hard to breathe and impossible to move.
Through Sunday, the number of dead climbed to 154, with dozens more injured. Authorities have now launched an urgent investigation to find out how what was supposed to be a night of celebration went so horribly wrong, as families across the country mourn and search for missing loved ones.
Here’s what we know so far.
Why were the crowds so big?
Itaewon has long been a popular place to celebrate Halloween, especially as the holiday became more popular in Asia in recent years. Some even fly into Seoul from other countries in the region for the festivities.
But for the past two years, celebrations were muted by pandemic restrictions on crowd sizes and mask mandates.
Saturday night marked the first Halloween since the country lifted these restrictions – lending it particular significance for many eager participants in Seoul, as well as international visitors including foreign residents and tourists.
Hotels and ticketed events in the neighborhood had been booked solid in advance, and large crowds were expected.
Witnesses told CNN there was very little – if any – crowd control before the mass of people turned deadly.
Videos and photos posted to social media show people crammed together, standing shoulder to shoulder in the narrow street.
Crowds are not unusual for that area, or for Seoul residents, who are used to jam-packed subways and streets in a city of almost 10 million.
One eyewitness said it took some time for people to realize something was wrong, with people’s panicked screams competing with music blaring from the surrounding clubs and bars.
After the first emergency calls came in around 10:24 p.m., authorities rushed to the scene – but the sheer volume of people made it difficult to reach those who needed help.
Video posted to social media showed people performing compressions on other partygoers lying on the ground as they waited for medical assistance.
The thousands of people in Halloween costumes contributed to the widespread sense of confusion and chaos. One witness described seeing a police officer shouting during the disaster – but some revelers mistook him for another partygoer.
The cause of the crush is still under investigation, though officials said there were no gas leaks or fires on site.