IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

South Korea mourns and probes deadly Halloween crowd crush

The death toll in the disaster in Seoul’s Itaewon district increased to 155, two of them Americans.

SEOUL, South Korea — Police admitted to errors Monday as South Korea searched for answers about how Halloween festivities in the country’s capital turned into a deadly crush.

President Yoon Suk Yeol led mourners in paying respects at sites in Seoul dedicated to the more than 150 people who were killed. His government vowed to conduct a thorough investigation into the disaster, the country's deadliest in years.

Tens of thousands of people had gathered Saturday in Itaewon — a nightlife district of the capital that is popular with foreigners — when a crowd surge began in a sloped and narrow alleyway, setting off a deadly panic.

Many of the revelers were in their teens and 20s and dressed in costumes for the country’s first Halloween celebration without Covid restrictions in three years.

The death toll in the disaster increased by one to 155, including two Americans and 24 other foreign nationals. All but one of the victims have been identified, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said. The number of injured also rose to 152, including 33 in serious condition. 

At memorials in the city, mourners left traditional white chrysanthemums, as well as snack foods, soft drinks and bottles of beer and the Korean liquor soju. In Itaewon, two Buddhist monks chanted and performed rites throughout the afternoon.

The president, who has ordered a weeklong national mourning period, paid his respects to victims at a memorial near City Hall. A second memorial has been set up at a site in Itaewon.

“I am engulfed with sorrow and responsibility as the president in charge of the lives and safety of our people, as I think about the bereaving families suffering from the loss of their loved ones,” Yoon said at a meeting before visiting the memorial Monday. “My heart breaks so much at the tragic loss, especially of the young people, whose dreams now cannot see the light.”

At the meeting, he ordered the government to cover the victims’ funeral and medical costs. Officials urged the public not to spread false information, hate speech or graphic video from the scene as they investigated.

Police said they had launched a 475-member task force to investigate the crush. The force had obtained videos taken by about 50 security cameras in the area and were also analyzing video clips posted on social media, senior police officer Nam Gu-Jun told reporters. They had interviewed more than 40 witnesses and survivors so far, Nam said Monday.

Witnesses suggested there was insufficient police presence to control the crowds, which may have been larger than anticipated.

A top police official countered that suggestion but said authorities had failed to foresee the possibility of a deadly crush.

“It was foreseen that a large number of people would gather there. But we didn’t expect that large-scale casualties would occur due to the gathering of many people,” Hong Ki-hyun, chief of the National Police Agency’s Public Order Management Bureau, told reporters Monday.

“I was told that police officers on the scene didn’t detect a sudden surge in the crowd,” he said, adding: “I regret the error in judgment call of these officers.” 

According to Hong, there were 137 police officers deployed in Itaewon on Saturday, compared with 37 to 90 officers in the three years before the start of the pandemic.

“The focus was on traffic control, crime prevention and illegal activities and not on the safety of the crowd flow on the streets and narrow alleyways,” he said. Hong added that police had no manual for situations like the Halloween festivities, which had no central organizer, and that they would learn from the disaster.

As a team of police officers and government forensic experts searched the area for answers about where the crowd surge started and how it developed, experts said a failure to control the number of people allowed in the area was the ultimate issue.

“There’s a finite number of people that can fit in any space,” said Keith Still, a professor of crowd science at University of Suffolk in the United Kingdom.

“Anybody moving or trying to get out, once it’s past that safety threshold, there’s very little they can do. It’s up to the people that are managing and planning the spaces,” he said.

While Halloween is not a traditional holiday in South Korea, Itaewon is known for its costume parties at bars and clubs, which have soared in popularity in recent years.

Soccer coach Kerem Kerimoglu was one of the thousands who gathered there Saturday.

With every passing hour, he said, he gets even more worried that he hasn’t heard back from the two friends he was separated from during the surge.

Kerimoglu, 27, lives about a mile away from Itaewon's main street. He said he returned to the scene Sunday evening and saw dozens of mourners, clad in black clothes, gathering around a makeshift memorial site and offering white flowers.

“They were giving free flowers to everyone. I took one too and put flowers and remembered that day,” he said via Instagram, adding that the air smelt like “death.”

“I got goosebumps when I put the flowers on the ground,” he said.

The crowd surge is the country’s deadliest peacetime accident since the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry. That accident, in which 304 people were killed, also affected mainly young people.

Stella Kim and Thomas Maresca reported from Seoul. Jennifer Jett and Mithil Aggarwal reported from Hong Kong.