SEOUL — Many questions remained unanswered 16 hours after a crowd crush killed at least 151 people during a Halloween celebration in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in central Seoul. Officials do not yet know what caused the disaster, but recollections from witnesses and participants are helping to paint a fuller picture of the terrifying evening.
Janelle Story, 35, an English teacher who was out with two friends in the neighborhood, said a stampede of people briefly rushed toward her around 10:30 p.m. near the corner from the alleyway where most of the victims were crushed. “I saw this sea of bodies come rushing toward us really fast, without any warning. It seemed to happen so suddenly,” she said.
Ms. Story said she was worried, but thought at first that it was just an inebriated crowd being disorderly. She left the area around 11 p.m. and learned the full extent of the tragedy only after she took the subway back to the area where she lives.
In hindsight, she said the people who had rushed toward her were probably reacting in panic to what was unfolding in the alley. “It didn’t even occur to me they were running in fear,” she said.
Seon Yeo-jeong, a South Korean YouTuber, recounted her experience on her Instagram page. She said she recalled hearing people yelling, “Hey, push! We’re stronger! I’ll win!” And she described at one point “being swayed back and forth as if in a tug of war” before being squeezed from front and back. “If my friend hadn’t held me and helped me,” she said, “I think I would have passed out and fallen to the ground.”
Kim Seo-jeong was excited to celebrate Halloween in the neighborhood. The 17-year-old had come wearing the traditional Chinese dress known as a qipao, along with a friend who was dressed as a maid. Like so many others, they had missed out on previous chances to celebrate the holiday because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Saturday night quickly turned deadly. Ms. Kim, a high school student, was among the thousands of people who found themselves crammed into a narrow, hilly alley. “People behind me fell like dominoes,” Ms. Kim said. “There were people beneath me and people falling on top of me. I could hardly breathe. We shouted and screamed for help, but the music was so loud in the alley, our shouts were drowned.”
Ms. Kim and her friend managed to crawl toward safety and were eventually pulled into a tavern by onlookers. They later left the alley by inching along the walls.
“I have never seen crowds like that in my life, except maybe at a political rally,” said Ulas Cetinkaya, 36, a worker at a kebab shop across from the alley where the crush occurred. He and his co-workers were expecting crowds at the shop because it was the first Halloween celebration since Covid restrictions had been lifted in South Korea. He said that he was surprised at the minimal police presence.