How a celebration turned into a nightmare in South Korea’s Itaewon district

People walk along the Itaewon street of a deadly stampede during a Halloween festival  in Seoul, South Korea.People walk along the Itaewon street of a deadly stampede during a Halloween festival  in Seoul, South Korea.
People walk along the Itaewon street of a deadly stampede during a Halloween festival in Seoul, South Korea.
IT was a night which was supposed to be a chance for young people to relax and celebrate with friends after almost three years of Covid restrictions.

However, the Halloween celebrations in the South Korean capital, Seoul, turned into a nightmare after a stampede and crush killed 153 people and injured dozens more.

South Korea declared a period of mourning for a week, while special altars are to be set up around the capital to allow people to mourn.

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The Halloween weekend event is a popular party night in the Seoul calendar, with this year’s festivities the first time that crowds could celebrate outside without wearing masks following the Covid pandemic. Witnesses said that crowds got increasingly tight in the alleys and people began to push. Women were disproportionately represented among the casualties – believed to be because they are generally smaller and more likely to have been crushed in the crowds.

Sonali Madane, a 29-year-old student from India living in Korea, told local media that she had seen people lying on the street being given CPR and said the situation had been made worse due to a rumour that a celebrity was due to appear.

"My friends and I went there at 9:45 pm. Within half an hour, this incident happened,” she said, adding that there was “chaos” when she left a club. “People were spreading rumours, 'Is there an explosion? Is it a bomb?' Because of that, everybody was freaking out…Others were saying there is some celebrity coming [which caused a stampede]," Ms Madane told The Korea Times.

Thousands of people crushed into narrow alleys in the Itaewon district, which has been featured in multiple K-dramas and K-pop songs, such as 2020 Netflix drama Itaewon Class.

No British nationals have yet been identified among the dead, which include at least 26 foreigners. Officials have said that four Iranians and a 29-year-old woman from Thailand are among those killed, while the Australian embassy has confirmed that one of their citizens also died in the accident and Russian state media has said three of its citizens are among the dead. People from Uzbekistan, China, France and Norway are also among those killed, as well as two US citizens.

"As the identity of the casualties is still being identified, there is a possibility that the number of foreign casualties will increase further,” said an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Social media sites in Korea are flooded with people looking for news of their friends and relatives. Sadly, some requests for information have since been updated, with news that the missing person has been found among the dead or injured.

One man said on an ex-pat Facebook group that his missing friend, a Sri Lankan national, had been killed.

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The man said: “Our friend passed away and the body found in hospital mortuary.”

Group members expressed their condolences.

"I am so sorry for your loss, may his soul rest in peace,” one group member said.

Party nights ahead of Halloween have only become popular in South Korea in the past few years, starting with the growing ex-pat community in Seoul, but spreading to local young people in recent times.

“Children were among the first to experience Halloween culture, centring on English immersive kindergartens. Then, it spread to adults, mainly young people,” culture critic Ha Jae-geun told The Korean Herald.

Celebrities competitively took photos of their Halloween makeup and posted them on social media, which also affected the spread," he added.

South Korea's Interior Minister Lee Sang-min said officials had not anticipated that 100,000 people would flock to Itaewon's narrow streets – and admitted police had been deployed elsewhere to deal with a protest.