On the evening of October 29, more than 100,000 people gathered to celebrate Halloween in one of Seoul’s most popular neighborhoods, Itaewon, renowned for its nightlife. Participants of the celebration, who were mostly in their twenties and dressed in costumes, filled the narrow streets of Itaewon, relieving their stress as the COVID-19 restrictions had been lifted after years of pandemic life.
At around 10pm, the number of people in Itaewon was at its peak, disaster emerged out of the pathway that connects Itaewon Train Station to the Hamilton Hotel, which was completely packed with the crowd. Approximately 800 people were stuck in place as they were unable to move forwards or backwards and escape the crowd. Witnesses reported that some people in the middle of the crowd suddenly started to faint and fall, which caused a domino effect throughout the crowd and bodies began to pile up on each other.
Despite the arrival of police officers and medical staff, it took several minutes to dissolve the crowd to an open area for treatment because all the bodies were so tightly pack.. Over a hundred bodies were laid on the ground to receive CPR by first responders and civilians alike. Sophia Akhiyat, an American doctor, was present during the disaster and in an interview told CNN, “It was so chaotic because there were so many victims on the floor, along with foot traffic and partygoers and music blasting from surrounding restaurants and clubs that had no idea what was going on.”
Ambulances quickly transported people who were in need of medical treatment, while dead bodies were covered with vinyl and left on the street. People who survived were either in panic, calling their families to ensure that they were safe, or were busy taking videos and pictures of the situation, which later became a controversial issue. Many of the survivors were criticized for not assisting those in need, and instead recording videos of vulnerable victims of the crush. Some videos contained footage of people sexually harrassing the bodies dressed in halloween custumes that exposed compromising parts of their bodies.
As of November 10, 156 lives were reported to have been lost from the Itaewon stampede, and investigations have been initiated to get to the bottom of what exactly occurred. There are several alleged causes as to why so many people perished, besides the fact that there were simply too many people in such a narrow space.
The most commonly discussed cause for this catastrophe is that the local government of Yongsan district did not follow the traditional guidelines for mass gatherings that are not planned or organized by a certain organization, such as Halloween and Christmas. According to Yonhap News, there had been different guidelines for Halloween every year, which were documented from annual meetings of the local governments, police, and the merchants regarding how to deal with an uncontrollable crowd that was likely to be particularly intoxicated. However, it is reported that such practice was overlooked this year as officials somehow ‘forgot’ to do so after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic when Halloween gatherings were out of the picture. As a result, both the report system and crowd management weren’t properly implemented by police officers, delaying their response to numerous emergency calls.
Another alleged cause is that the amount of police present that night was not enough. Prior to the Itaewon stampede, there were ongoing protests criticizing the president, Yoon Suk-Yeo, in front of his private residence. News outlets reported that around half of the Seoul police force was located in that area to protect the residence and control the crowd. The consequence of this was the police’s inability to swiftly respond to the Itaewon crisis and save as many lives as possible. Six police officers are currently under criminal allegation for dereliction of duty.
In South Korea, there are two conflicting sides regarding the investigation of the Itaewon crowd crush. One side claims that it is meaningless to find who is responsible and everyone must move forward by discussing how to prevent future disasters similar to this one. The other side, however, demands that the government should more closely investigate why tragedy manifested and punish those responsible for their incompetence. Nevertheless, both sides agree that the Itaewon crowd crush should never have happened and must never repeat itself in the future.
Yeung, Jessie, and Teele Rebane. “’Somebody Is Going to Die’: How Seoul’s Deadly Halloween Crush Unfolded.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Nov. 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/11/04/asia/itaewon-seoul-korea-halloween-crush-timeline-intl-hnk-dst/index.html.
“Crowd Crushes: How Disasters like Itaewon Happen, How Can They Be Prevented, and the ‘Stampede’ Myth.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 Nov. 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/nov/01/how-do-crowd-crushes-happen-stampede-myth-what-happened-in-the-seoul-itaewon-halloween-crush.