South Korean police investigated on Monday what caused a crowd surge that killed more than 150 people, including 26 foreigners, during Halloween festivities in Seoul in the country’s worst disaster in years, as President Yoon Suk Yeol and tens of thousands of others paid respects to the dead at special mourning sites.
Saturday’s disaster was concentrated in a sloped, narrow alley in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood, a popular nightlife district, with witnesses and survivors recalling a “hell-like” chaos with people falling on each other like dominoes. They said the entire Itaewon area was jammed with slow-moving vehicles and partygoers clad in Halloween costumes, making it impossible for rescuers and ambulances to reach the crammed alleys in time.
Police said they've launched a 475-member task force to investigate the crush.
Officers have obtained videos taken by about 50 security cameras in the area and are also analyzing video clips posted on social media. They have interviewed more than 40 witnesses and survivors so far, senior police officer Nam Gu-Jun told reporters Monday.
Other police officers said they are trying to find exactly when and where the crowd surge started and how it developed. They said a team of police officers and government forensic experts searched the Itaewon area on Monday.
“The government will thoroughly investigate the cause of the incident and do its best to make necessary improvements of systems to prevent a similar accident from recurring,” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said at the start of a government meeting on the disaster.
The Itaewon area, famous for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, is the country’s hottest spot for Halloween-themed events and parties, which have grown increasingly popular among young South Koreans in recent years. An estimated 100,000 people were gathered there in the country’s largest Halloween celebration since the pandemic began.
The dead included 26 foreign nationals.
One of the Americans killed was Anne Gieske, a University of Kentucky nursing student from northern Kentucky who was doing a study-abroad program in South Korea, the university said in a statement. The other was Steven Blesi, 20, his father, Steve Blesi, wrote on Twitter after earlier seeking information about his son.
Blesi appealed for information after not hearing from his son, asking, “If anyone has any news please share.” After a flood of responses offering help and support, he tweeted, “We just got confirmation our son died,” followed by “Thank you for the outpouring of love. We need time to grieve.”
Australian victim Grace Rached, a Sydney film production assistant, was described by her family as “our life of the party.” Her family said in a statement that “We are missing our gorgeous angel Grace, who lit up the room with her infectious smile.”
The Japanese dead included Mei Tomikawa, who was studying Korean language in Seoul, according to Japanese media. Her father, Ayumu Tomikawa, told Japanese public broadcaster NHK that his daughter “really liked South Korea and was enjoying her life there.”