SEOUL – South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol on Sunday declared a national mourning period over a crush during Halloween festivities, saying it was so miserable to see such a disaster happening in the heart of Seoul, the Yonhap news agency reported.
“It’s truly horrific,” Mr Yoon said, saying Saturday’s “tragedy and disaster should never have happened.”
“As president, who is responsible for the people’s lives and safety, my heart is heavy and I struggle to cope with my grief,” he said.
“The government will designate the period from today until the accident is brought under control as a period of national mourning and will place top priority in administrative affairs in recovery and follow-up measures.”
Mr Yoon expressed his condolences over the deaths and wished a speedy recovery for the injured, say the government will support funeral preparations and fully mobilise emergency medical services to treat patients, including by assigning public servants individually to those requiring assistance.
“The most important thing is to determine the cause of the accident and prevent similar accidents,” he said. “We will thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident and make fundamental improvements so that similar accidents do not happen again in the future.”
Mr Choi Sung-beom, head of the Yongsan Fire Station, said 153 deaths had been confirmed, including 22 foreigners. He told a briefing at the scene 82 people were injured, 19 of them seriously.
Officials said there was no immediate signs that narcotics were involved in the crush.
Relevant authorities will conduct emergency inspections for Halloween events as well as other local festivals and ensure they are carried out in an orderly and safe manner, Mr Yoon said.
A Halloween event scheduled for Sunday in Hongdae, another Seoul neighbourhood popular among young people, has been cancelled, according to a text message from the local government.
It was the first Halloween event in Seoul in three years after the country lifted Covid-19 restrictions and social distancing. Many of the partygoers were wearing masks and Halloween costumes.
Some witnesses described the crowd becoming increasingly unruly and agitated as the evening deepened. The incident took place at about 10.20pm local time (9.20pm in Singapore).
“A number of people fell during a Halloween festival, and we have a large number of casualties,” Mr Choi said.
Many of those killed were near a nightclub. Many of the victims were women in their 20s, while the foreigners killed included people from China, Iran, Uzbekistan and Norway, Mr Choi said.
Witnesses described chaos moments before the crush, with the police on hand in anticipation of the Halloween event at times having trouble maintaining control of the crowds.
Mr Moon Ju-young, 21, said there were clear signs of trouble in the alleys before the incident. “It was at least more than 10 times crowded than usual,” he told Reuters.
Social media footage showed hundreds of people packed in the narrow, sloped alley crushed and immobile as emergency officials and police tried to pull them to free.
Mr Choi, the Yongsan district fire chief, said all the deaths were likely from the crush in the single narrow alley.
Fire officials and witnesses said people continued to pour into the alley that was already packed wall-to-wall, when those at the top of the sloped street fell, sending people below them toppling over others.
One woman said her daughter, pulled from the crush of people, survived after being trapped for more than an hour.
The accident is the worst to take place in South Korea since the sinking of the Sewol Ferry in 2014 killed 304 people, leading to criticism against the government at the time for its response to the emergency.
Stampedes and crushes have occurred in the past, including in 2005, when 11 people were killed in Sangju city when crowds rushed into a concert venue. In 2006, 35 people were injured while trying to enter a theme park that was open for free in Seoul.
In a Facebook post, the Singapore Embassy in Seoul said it was saddened by Saturday’s tragedy.
It added that Singaporeans who require urgent consular assistance may contact the Embassy’s Duty Officer at 010-7204-6240 (if calling from outside South Korea, dial 8210-7204-6240). REUTERS, BLOOMBERG