SEOUL, South Korea — At least 153 people were killed and 103 others were injured in a crowd surge Saturday night during Halloween festivities in a popular nightlife district, officials said, one of the biggest disasters in the country that will likely raise questions about public safety standards.
Most of the victims were people in their late teens and 20s, said Choi Seong-beom, chief of Seoul’s Yongsan fire department.
Two American citizens were among the dead, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul confirmed to NBC News Sunday.
“Our staff in Seoul and colleagues in the United States are working tirelessly to provide consular assistance to the victims of last night’s incident and their families,” they added.
They did not provide any details of age or identity for the victims.
The Yongsan fire department said that the other foreign victims came from China, Iran, France, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Norway, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Austria and Kazakhstan.
Of the injured, 23 are in critical condition while 79 have less severe injuries, the fire department added.
The crowd had gathered in the narrow alley in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood to celebrate Halloween, officials have said. The incident was first reported around 10:15 p.m. Saturday, local time.
What we know about the deadly incident in Seoul
- At least 153 people were killed and 103 injured, officials said.
- Two American citizens were among the dead, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul confirmed to NBC News.
- Of the injured, 23 are in critical condition while 79 have less severe injuries.
- Survivors reported people in the packed crowd falling over each other and being trampled as they were pushed down narrow alleys in the popular nightlife district.
- Both healthcare workers and bystanders administered CPR to people on the streets, and officials said all available emergency workers in the city were mobilized.
In a televised address Sunday morning, President Yoon Suk-yeol declared a period of national mourning period, a spokesperson from his office in a text briefing.
“Last night, a tragedy and a disaster that should never happen did happen in the middle of Seoul celebrating Halloween,” Yoon said.
“As the president who bears the responsibilities for the lives and the safety of our people, I have a heavy heart and the sorrow is too much to bear,” he continued.
After the address, Yoon arrived on the scene in Itaewon and briefly toured the alley where the surge occurred. He left without speaking to reporters.
Though initially described as a stampede, video appears to depict a crowd surge, a wave of people pushing forward through an overpacked crowd.
The Itaewon Fire Station said in an earlier briefing that 21 people were confirmed to have suffered cardiac arrest in the surge, and Choi said bodies were being sent to hospitals or a gym, where bereaved family members could identify them.
Lee Da-eum, 25, said she was in a nearby club when she heard that there had been an accident outside.
“I arrived early and could already see (Itaewon) was getting too crowded,” Lee said. “Then my mom started calling and texting after she saw the news. She knew I was coming here and was so worried.”
“How could this happen?” she said.
People fell 'like dominoes,' survivor says
An estimated 100,000 people gathered in Itaewon — near a former headquarters of U.S. military forces in an area known for trendy bars, clubs and restaurants — for the country’s biggest outdoor Halloween festivities since the pandemic began. The South Korean government eased Covid-19 restrictions in recent months.
One survivor said many people fell and toppled to one another “like dominoes” after they were being pushed by other people at a narrow downhill alley near Itaewon’s Hamilton Hotel.
The survivor, surnamed Kim, said some people shouted “Help me!” and others were short of breath. Kim described being trampled by other people for about 1 ½ hours before being rescued, according to the Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper.
Another survivor, named Lee Chang-kyu, said he saw about five to six men start pushing others before one or two began falling one by one at the start of the surge, according to the newspaper.
Video posted to social media from earlier in the evening show members of a packed crowd moving slowly down the street shoulder-to-shoulder in the same area where the surge was alleged to have taken place.
Other videos of the packed crowd show people screaming and yelling and emergency medical personnel carrying victims down a littered street that had been cleared of crowds, and another shows someone trying to escape the surge by scaling a wall.
It was the nation's biggest disaster since 304 people, mostly high school students, died in a ferry sinking in April 2014. The sinking exposed lax safety rules and regulatory failures as it was partially blamed on excessive and poorly fastened cargo and a crew poorly trained for emergency situations.
The disaster will likely cause public criticism of government officials over what they’ve done to improve public safety standards since the sinking.
In his address Sunday morning, Yoon said there would be an emergency review of regional festival plans to ensure they are carried out safely.
"Most of all, it is very important to prevent similar accidents and verify the cause of the accident," he said. "We will fundamentally address the root of the cause and make sure that such accidents are never repeated."
'Bodies were everywhere'
A massive response of 1,700 personnel from across the country were deployed to the scene, including about 520 firefighters and 1,100 police officers and 70 government workers. The National Fire Agency said in a statement that all of Seoul’s available emergency workers have been mobilized.
TV footage and photos showed ambulance vehicles lined up in streets amid a heavy police presence and emergency workers moving the injured in stretchers. Emergency workers and pedestrians were also seen performing CPR on people lying in the streets. In one section, paramedics were seen checking the status of a dozen or more people who lied motionless under blue blankets.
Reagan Sangwa, 43, who lives nearby, said he learned about the incident on social media as it was happening and went to see if he could help.
“It was a disaster, it was a calamity,” Sangwa said. “Bodies were everywhere. I helped with CPR on two people and they took them to the hospital.”
In an interview with news channel YTN, Hwang Min-hyeok, a visitor to Itaewon, said it was shocking to see rows of bodies laid down in the alley near Hamilton Hotel. He said emergency workers were initially overwhelmed, leaving pedestrians struggling to administer CPR to the injured lying on the streets. People cried beside bodies, he said.
Another survivor in his 20s said he avoided being trampled by getting into a bar that had its door open at the alley, Yonhap news agency reported. A woman in her 20s surnamed Park told Yonhap that she and others were standing along the side of the alley while others were caught in the middle.
Police, who were restricting traffic in nearby areas to speed up the transportation of the injured to hospitals across the city, also confirmed that dozens of people were being given CPR on Itaewon streets. The Seoul Metropolitan Government issued emergency text messages urging people in the area to swiftly return home.
President Yoon ordered Prime Minister Han Duk-soo to oversee the accident management headquarters and speed up the process of identifying the victims, especially for the sake of the families waiting for their family members, according to Kim Eun-hye, senior secretary for public communications.
He also instructed the Health Ministry to swiftly deploy disaster medical assistance teams and secure beds in a nearby hospital to treat the injured.
Seoul’s city government said more than 2,000 people have called a city office in nearby Hannam-dong reporting their relatives as out of contact and asking officials to confirm whether they were among those injured or dead.
World leaders, including those from the United States, France, Canada, the U.K. and Germany, shared their condolences and words of support for South Korea, and wished the survivors a fast recovery.
"Jill and I send our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones in Seoul," President Joe Biden said in a statement Saturday. "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."
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a tweet that the U.S. stands ready to support the country.
Philip Goldberg, U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea, said he was “devastated by the tragic loss of life in Itaewon last night.”
“Please know my thoughts, and those of our team at U.S. Embassy Seoul, are with the Korean people and especially the loved ones of those who perished, as well as the many injured in this catastrophic incident,” Goldberg said in a statement.
U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted his support for Seoul in the wake of the event.
Stella Kim and Thomas Maresca reported from South Korea, and Julianne McShane reported from New York.