South Korea's Yoon declares a period of mourning after Halloween crush kills 151

SEOUL, Oct 30 - South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol declared a period of national mourning on Sunday after a Halloween crush killed about 151 people in Seoul's crowded nightlife district.

Yoon expressed his condolences to the victims, mostly teenagers and people in their 20s, and his wishes for a speedy recovery for the many injured in one of South Korea's worst disasters and the world's worst stampede in decades.

"This is truly tragic," he said in a statement. "Tragedies and disasters that shouldn't have happened happened in the heart of Seoul last night."

A large celebrating crowd in the popular Itaewon district surged into an alley late Saturday, emergency officials said, adding the death toll could rise.

Choi Sung-beom, chief of the Yongsan Fire Station, said 151 deaths had been confirmed, including 22 foreigners. He said at a briefing at the scene 82 people were injured, 19 of them seriously.

Desperate family and friends seek news from loved ones in community centers that have become emergency facilities for the missing.

As of noon, the Interior Ministry said at least 90% of the victims had been identified, with the delay affecting some foreign nationals and teenagers who did not yet have identity cards.

South Korean technology and mobile gaming companies including Kakao (035720.KS) and NCSOFT (036570.KS) withdrew their Halloween promotions after the tragedy, while amusement park Everland canceled Halloween-themed events. Many local governments and organizations have canceled or reduced festivals and other celebrations.

This is the first Halloween event in Seoul in three years to be virtually free of COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing. Many partygoers wear Halloween masks and costumes.

On Sunday mornings, costumes and personal belongings were stained with blood on the narrow streets. Survivors huddled under makeshift blankets amid crowds of emergency workers, police and the media.

Many of those killed were near nightclubs, Choi said. Many of the victims were women in their 20s, while foreigners killed included people from China, Iran, Uzbekistan and Norway, he said.

Eyewitnesses described the crowd as becoming increasingly uncontrollable and restless as the night wore on. Chaos erupted just before 10:20 p.m. (1320 GMT) jostled, with police on hand for the event sometimes struggling to control the crowds, witnesses said.

Moon Ju-young, 21, said there were clear signs of trouble in the alley prior to the incident. He told Reuters it was more than 10 times busier than usual.

Social media footage showed hundreds of people crammed into the narrow, sloping alley crushed and unable to move as emergency workers and police tried to free them.


Choi, the head of the Yongsan district fire department, said all of the dead were most likely the result of an accident in the alley.

Firefighters and witnesses said people continued to flood the alley after it was packed, as those at the top of the slope fell, sending those below them tumbling on top of the others.

A woman said her daughter, pulled from the crush of people, survived after being trapped for more than an hour.

A makeshift morgue was set up in a building next to the scene. About four dozen bodies were pushed out on wheeled stretchers and transferred to government facilities to identify the victims, according to a Reuters witness.

The Itaewon district is popular with young South Koreans and expats, its dozens of bars and restaurants packed on Saturdays for Halloween after business suffered a sharp decline during three years of the pandemic.

"You'll see huge crowds at Christmas and fireworks ... but it's several orders of magnitude bigger than all that," Park Jung-hoon, 21, told Reuters from the scene.

International leaders offered condolences, including US President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping of China, who noted that Chinese citizens were among the dead and injured.

With the COVID pandemic easing, curfews at bars and restaurants and the 10-person limit for private gatherings were lifted in April. The outdoor mask mandate was dropped in May.

President Yoon holds an emergency meeting with senior aides and orders a task force be formed to secure resources to treat the injured and launch a thorough investigation into the causes of the disaster.

The disaster was among the deadliest in the country since the 2014 ferry sinking that killed 304 people, mainly high school students.

The sinking of the Sewol, and criticism of the official response, sent shockwaves across South Korea, prompting a widespread soul-searching over the country's security measures likely to be renewed after Saturday's devastation.

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