South Korea was in mourning on Monday after more than 150 people, mostly young adults, died when a huge Halloween party crowd burst into a narrow alley in a Seoul nightlife district.

It remains unclear what prompted the crowds to rush into the Itaewon area downhill driveway on Saturday night, and authorities have promised a full investigation. Witnesses said people were falling on top of each other “like dominoes” and some victims were bleeding from their noses and mouths during CPR.

On Monday morning, people placed white chrysanthemums, drinks and candles on a small makeshift altar at an exit from Itaewon subway station, a short walk from the scene of the crush. Another memorial for the victims has been erected in Seoul’s City Hall Square.

“It doesn’t matter how they died or why they died. These poor people, all the same age as my grandchildren, died anyway,” said retired church elder Jung Si-hoon, who placed an old wooden cross on the makeshift altar. .

” What more can be said ? We should pray for them and wish them to rest in peace.

Nearby shops and cafes were closed and police cordoned off the site of the incident, which was littered with rubbish.

Schools, kindergartens and businesses across the country have canceled planned Halloween events. K-pop concerts and government briefings have also been canceled.

South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo has promised an investigation into the disaster.

“Identification is complete for all but one of the 154 deceased, and I think it’s time for follow-up actions such as funeral procedures to be taken seriously,” Han said. “We will do our best to provide the necessary support by reflecting the views of bereaved families as much as possible.”

President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has declared a period of national mourning and designated Itaewon as a disaster area, visited a memorial altar near City Hall and paid tribute to the victims on Monday, his office said.

Almost two-thirds of those killed – 97 – were women and 133 people were injured. More than 80% of the dead were in their 20s and 30s, and at least four were teenagers.

The Interior and Security Ministry said the death toll could rise further as 37 of the injured were in serious condition.

Witnesses said many people seemed unaware of the disaster unfolding just steps away from them. Some dressed in Halloween costumes continued to sing and dance nearby while others lay lifeless on the ground.

Ken Fallas, a Costa Rican architect who traveled to Itaewon with expat friends, used his smartphone to film a video showing unconscious people being carried out of the alley as others screamed for help. He said loud music made things more chaotic.

“When we just started moving forward, there was no way to go back,” Fallas said. “We didn’t hear anything because the music was very loud. Now, I think that’s one of the main things that made this so complicated.

Authorities said thousands of people called or visited an office in the nearby town, reporting missing relatives and asking officials to confirm whether they were among those injured or dead after the crash.

A man takes a deep bow while paying his respects near the site of a crush that occurred during Halloween festivities in Seoul. Photo: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Bodies of the dead were being kept at 42 hospitals in Seoul and neighboring Gyeonggi Province, according to the city of Seoul, which said it would ask crematoria to burn more bodies each day as part of procedural support plans. funeral.

About 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon for the country’s biggest outdoor Halloween festivities since the start of the pandemic. The South Korean government had eased Covid-19 restrictions in recent months.

Although Halloween isn’t a traditional holiday in South Korea – where children rarely go for tricks – it’s still a major attraction for young adults, and costume parties at bars and clubs have become extremely popular in recent years.

The top Halloween destination in Seoul is Itaewon. The expat-friendly neighborhood is known for its trendy bars, clubs and restaurants.

Witnesses said the streets were so densely packed with people and slow-moving vehicles that it was virtually impossible for rescue workers and ambulances to quickly reach the driveway near the Hamilton Hotel, a major party spot in Seoul. .

In a televised address, Yoon said supporting the families of the victims, including their funeral preparations, and treating the injured would be a top priority for his government. He also called on officials to thoroughly investigate the cause of the crash and review the safety of other major cultural and entertainment events.

“It is truly devastating. The tragedy and disaster that should not have happened took place in the heart of Seoul in the middle of Halloween (celebrations),” Yoon said during his speech. “I have the heavy heart and I can’t contain my sadness as the president responsible for people’s lives and safety.”

After the speech, Yoon visited the alley where the disaster happened. Local television footage showed him inspecting the driveway and being briefed by emergency services officials.

World leaders offered their condolences, including Pope Francis.

Of the 20 foreigners who died, four are from China; three from Russia; two from Iran; and one each from Vietnam, Australia, Austria, Norway, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka and the United States, the interior ministry said. He added that the nationalities of the other four foreigners have not been confirmed.

Some local media said the foreign death toll had risen to 26. France and Thailand each said one, and Japan said two of their nationals also died in the Itaewon disaster, but the South Korean Interior Ministry could not immediately confirm the information.

The influx of crowds was South Korea’s deadliest disaster since 2014, when 304 people, mostly high school students, died in the sinking of a ferry.

The sinking revealed lax safety rules and regulatory failures. It was partly blamed on excessive, loosely secured cargo and an ill-trained crew in emergency situations. Saturday’s deaths will likely draw public attention to what government officials have been doing to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.

With Associated Press and Agence France-Presse

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