At first everything seemed normal to Benedict Manlapaz as he joined Halloween revelers in the Itaewon neighborhood of South Korea's capital, Seoul, but the scale of the tragedy gradually became clear.
Manlapaz, 23, said in a Zoom interview early Sunday that he was initially unaware of the fatal surge that officials say left at least 153 people dead and 103 injured as he walked among the crowds.
“We saw a young lady on the ground, blood splattered. About two EMTs were performing CPR on her,” he said.
At first he said he mistakenly thought she had had too much to drink as made his way through the swarm of partygoers to the second floor of a coffee shop.
“We all walked in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd,” said Manlapaz, adding that he had been to a Halloween-themed cruise party with colleagues.
Inside the coffee shop, everything seemed normal and it was “your typical Halloween night,” Manlapaz said, only realizing that something was wrong when “they started setting up tents in the middle of the street and fire trucks started appearing and 20 to 30 ambulances were all lined up.”
Manlapaz said he later joined a group of people on the coffee shop's roof, which gave him a good view of the street below.
There he said he saw “bodies lined up next to each other, all covered in blue bags.”
Some of his group were CPR certified and “they even went downstairs and offered to help out the people,” he said.
But he said they came back shortly afterward because there were too many victims and they were struggling to communicate with the people they were trying to help.
As the scale of the tragedy unfolded, Manlapaz said he was pinging his friends “constantly” and they were “sending each other locations.”
Eventually, as the crowds thinned out a little, he said he was able to get a taxi for a “ridiculous amount.”
An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon for the country’s biggest outdoor Halloween festivities since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
While Halloween is not a traditional holiday in South Korea, and children rarely go trick-or-treating, it is still a major attraction for young adults, and costume parties at bars and clubs have become hugely popular in recent years.
The death toll continued to rise Sunday. The Yongsan fire department said in an update that 153 people had been killed and that 103 others had been injured in crowd surge Saturday night as thousands turned out for Halloween festivities in the popular nightlife district.
As concerned relatives rushed to hospitals in search of their loved ones on Sunday, President Yoon Suk-yeol declared a national mourning period.
“Last night, a tragedy and a disaster that should never happen did happen in the middle of Seoul celebrating Halloween,” Yoon said.
Prime Minister Han Duk-soo later said the period of mourning would run until Saturday.