A mass of mostly young people celebrating Halloween in Seoul became trapped and crushed as the crowd surged into a narrow alley, killing at least 151 people and injuring 82 others in South Korea's worst disaster in years.
Emergency workers and pedestrians desperately performed CPR on people lying in the streets after the crush in the capital's leisure district of Itaewon on Saturday night.
Those killed or hurt were mostly teens and people in their 20s, according to Choi Seong-beom, chief of Seoul's Yongsan fire department. The dead included 19 foreigners, he said, whose nationalities weren't immediately released. The death toll could rise further as 19 of those injured were in critical condition.
At least one U.S. citizen was injured in the stampede, the State Department told CBS News in a statement Saturday night.
"We are working with local authorities to determine if any additional U.S. citizens were affected and stand ready to provide consular assistance," the statement read.
Officials initially said 150 people were injured as of Sunday morning before later lowering their tally.
National Fire Agency officials didn't immediately explain why the tally was reduced but said emergency workers would have had a more accurate idea of the casualties as rescue operations proceeded and that some of the injured would have been converted to deaths. It was also possible that some of those who were lightly injured had returned home overnight and were no longer counted.
An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon for the country's biggest outdoor Halloween festivities since the pandemic began. The South Korean government eased COVID-19 restrictions in recent months. Itaewon, near where the former headquarters of U.S. military forces in South Korea operated before moving out of the capital in 2018, is an expat-friendly district known for its trendy bars, clubs and restaurants.
More than 1,700 response personnel from across the country were deployed to the streets to help the wounded, including about 520 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and 70 government workers. The National Fire Agency separately said in a statement that officials were still trying to determine the exact number of emergency patients.
It was not immediately clear what led the crowd to surge into the narrow downhill alley near the Hamilton Hotel, a major party spot in Seoul. One survivor said many people fell and toppled one another "like dominos" after they were being pushed by others. The survivor, surnamed Kim, said they were trapped for about an hour and a half before being rescued, as some people shouted "Help me!" and others were short of breath, according to the Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper.
Another survivor, named Lee Chang-kyu, said he saw about five to six men start pushing others before one or two began falling one by one at the start of the stampede, according to the newspaper.
The stampede is the biggest disaster since 304 people, mostly high school students, died in a ferry sinking in April 2014. The sinking exposed lax safety rules and regulatory failures as it was partially blamed on excessive and poorly fastened cargo and a crew poorly trained for emergency situations. Friday's stampede will likely cause public criticism of government officials over what they've done to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.
TV footage and photos showed ambulance vehicles lined up in streets amid a heavy police presence and emergency workers moving the injured in stretchers. Emergency workers and pedestrians were also seen performing CPR on people lying in the streets. In one section, paramedics were seen checking the status of a dozen or more people who lied motionless under blue blankets.
In an interview with news channel YTN, Hwang Min-hyeok, one of the visitors to Itaewon, said it was shocking to see rows of bodies laid down in the alley near Hamilton Hotel. He said emergency workers were initially overwhelmed, leaving pedestrians struggling to administer CPR to the injured lying on the streets. People cried beside bodies, he said.
Another survivor in his 20s said he avoided being trampled as he luckily got into a bar whose door was open at the alley, Yonhap news agency reported. A woman in her 20s surnamed Park told Yonhap that she and others were standing along the side of the alley while others were caught in the middle.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol issued a statement calling for officials to ensure swift treatment for those injured and review the safety of the festivity sites. He also instructed the Health Ministry to swiftly deploy disaster medical assistance teams and secure beds in nearby hospital to treat the injured.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government issued emergency text messages urging people in the area to swiftly return home.
"Jill and I send our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones in Seoul," President Biden said in a statement Saturday evening. "We grieve with the people of the Republic of Korea and send our best wishes for a quick recovery to all those who were injured. The Alliance between our two countries has never been more vibrant or more vital – and the ties between our people are stronger than ever. The United States stands with the Republic of Korea during this tragic time."
There have been deadly stampedes in South Korea in the past. In 2005, 11 people were killed and around 60 others were injured in a pop concert stampede in the southern city of Sangju. In 1992, a teenage girl died and dozens of others were injured during a stampede at a Seoul concert by the U.S. pop group New Kids on the Block.