Itaewon’s Halloween Nightmare

Image via Bloomberg

Image via Bloomberg

What was supposed to be a fun night celebrating Halloween in Itaewon, South Korea became an absolute nightmare. At around 10:20 pm local time, police received phone calls about people getting crushed in a narrow alley. The alley was located on a slope, and a sudden push caused people to fall over, get stuck against each other and the walls. 156 people were killed and 151 were injured. Witnesses described the incident not as a stampede but as a “slow and agonizing crush.”


Among the casualties were 26 foreigners from 14 nations. Multiple world leaders sent their condolences including President Biden who, via Twitter, said “Our hearts go out to their loved ones.” 


Multiple videos circulated on social media which showed ordinary citizens and emergency workers performing CPR on those injured. Those crushed on the bottom went into cardiac arrest and many suffocated due to lack of oxygen and space.  A Chinese woman injured recalled seeing her friends suffocating and dying next to her. She and many other survivors are having a hard time breathing after this incident.


Many of those who helped perform CPR had people die in their hands. The South Korean government is offering free therapy sessions in multiple languages to assist those mentally impacted by this tragedy. 


100 thousand people were present in Itaewon on Halloween night. Citizens pointed out that 200 thousand were present in 2019 and nothing like this happened. Multiple witnesses recalled that police officers were scarce and there was no traffic control. 137 officers were dispatched to the area but the majority were plainclothes officers meant to deal with crime, not crowd control. 


The Yongsan police department released their call log from the night of the accident and it revealed that there were 112 calls asking for crowd control. These calls began at 6:30 pm all the way up to the accident time of 10:20 pm. In one call the person specifically stated that they were “anxious” and were afraid of being crushed by the crowd. Another caller warned the police that there was a risk “of people being crushed to death.” These calls occurred hours before the bottleneck in the alley occurred and were left unanswered. 


“There was no police. There was nobody to help me. It was just me and other bystanders. And I couldn’t do anything,” said Nathan Taverniti, an Australian vacationing in Seoul. 


Crowd control experts have said that the police should have identified the alley as a dangerous bottleneck but there was no crowd control plan in place. Last year the celebrations had been lively, but under control, with police preventing people from entering busy areas. Yongsan’s police chief apologized for the inadequate police presence in Itaewon during the tragedy. While Seoul’s mayor said, “I infinitely feel responsible for this accident and express my deepest apologies…We will take measures to make sure this never happens again.”


President Yoon Seok-Yul has been in the process of moving from The Blue House to the defense ministry which requires 700 officers a day. These officers have been complaining about being short-staffed since the beginning of the year. This may have been the main factor in this tragedy. The police have launched a 475-person investigation into the tragedy.


The majority of the people that passed away were in their twenties and thirties, but twelve teenagers also passed away. There is a week-long mourning period to remember the lives lost during this tragedy.