‘Horrific’ stampede in Seoul stuns world; lesson for cities ready to celebrate festivities
Published: Oct 31, 2022 12:43 AM Updated: Oct 31, 2022 12:46 AM
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (front, second from left) visits the scene of a Halloween stampede in the capital's popular Itaewon district, in Seoul on October 30, 2022. At least 153 people were killed in the stampede the previous night. Photo: AFP

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (front, second from left) visits the scene of a Halloween stampede in the capital's popular Itaewon district, in Seoul on October 30, 2022. At least 153 people were killed in the stampede the previous night. Photo: AFP

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol announced a period of national mourning on Sunday after a deadly stampede in which at least 153 people were killed, including four Chinese nationals, and 80 injured as of press time in Seoul's Itaewon, when huge crowds packed into a cramped nightlife district to celebrate Halloween. 

On Sunday, on behalf of the Chinese government and Chinese people, President Xi Jinping sent a message of condolence to Yoon over the tragedy in Itaewon and expressed hope that the South Korean government would make every effort to rescue Chinese nationals, the Xinhua News Agency reported. 

As of press time, 22 foreigners from countries including China, the US, France, Iran, Uzbekistan and Norway have been identified among the dead. At least four Chinese nationals were confirmed dead and two others were injured in the accident, CCTV quoted the Chinese Embassy in South Korea as saying on Sunday.  

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has given its full attention to the incident and started an emergency mechanism to protect Chinese nationals and instructed the embassy in South Korea to better deal with the situation. 

On Sunday, the Chinese Embassy in South Korea issued a statement to remind Chinese citizens in South Korea to strengthen their security precautions, and said that it is communicating with local authorities and paying close attention to the situation of Chinese citizens.

It also reminded Chinese citizens to avoid crowded areas, not to blindly follow the trend to participate in large-scale events, and to be wary of "candy" and "drinks" given by strangers. Meanwhile, Chinese citizens should also take precautions against the epidemic and stay in close contact with their families and friends.

More than 750,000 Chinese citizens live in South Korea, accounting for 44 percent of foreign residents in the country, according to official figures released by South Korean authorities at the end of 2021.

On Sunday, many world leaders, including US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sent messages of condolences and support to South Korea. 

Ringing alarm  

The tragedy in Itaewon happened on Saturday night in a narrow alley sloping downhill near the Hamilton Hotel in the South Korean capital's famous nightlife district, which was holding its first unmasked Halloween celebrations since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Video footage uploaded on social media, including Twitter, shows the alley, less than five meters across, was packed with huge crowds and people, many of whom were wearing Halloween costumes, were unable to move. One video clip uploaded on Twitter shows people struggling to breathe and cries and shouts can be heard. 

South Korean media quoted witnesses and survivors as saying that as people continued to swarm into the narrow ally, those at the top of the sloped street fell, people below them fell down and knocked over others. Authorities said investigations into what caused the tragedy are ongoing. 

"It was horrific!" a student from China surnamed Zhang, who was in Itaewon on Saturday night, told the Global Times. 

Around 8 pm, Zhang and her friends stepped out of a restaurant and saw people were packed in the street, struggling to move. She was instantly worried about possible stampede and pulled her friends to walk against the wall. 

"But there were too many people and those behind us were pushing forward. We couldn't go anywhere but had to move with the flow of people," Zhang said. Finally, they were stuck in the packed street with no way to move.  

"It was hard to breathe and my friends who aren't that tall had their faces squeezing against other people's backs… they looked in pain," said Zhang, recalling that they tried to elbow out some room to breathe. They were finally pushed to the railway station around 10 pm. 

Another Chinese student surnamed Ha, who was also at Itaewon on Saturday told the Global Times that they finished dinner around 11 pm, and when they left the restaurant, they saw the streets were full of ambulances. They were stopped by the police as they were heading to the site of the incident.  

"We did not know what happened but later we found many people were carried to the ambulances, many people were administering CPR to those who were lying unconscious… we were scared," said Ha. 

Some stampedes have happened in a crowded concert venue or the railway station in Seoul but an incident on such a large scale is unprecedented, Chung Youngjune, a South Korean scholar who now works in Tongji University, told the Global Times. 

South Korean media reported that the stampede in Itaewon is the worst tragedy in South Korea since the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry in which 304 people died, mostly high school students. 

Chung described Itaewon as a bustling business district where foreign embassies are located with a mix of cultures and a concentration of bars and restaurants popular with young people and foreigners. Although an imported celebration, after three years of no Halloween events due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lifting of pandemic restrictions saw tens of thousands of people head to the area, ready to party. 

The police may not have expected so many people crowded in the district but any previous limitation may incur dissatisfaction from the public, Chung said, noting that after the accident in Itaewon, the government should take more precautionary measures before holidays. 

On Sunday, President Yoon presided over two successive emergency meetings to order officials to swiftly administer first aid and treat the injured. Addressing the nation live from the presidential office, Yoon said that Saturday's "tragedy and disaster should never have happened."

Zhan Debin, director and professor at the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics, told the Global Times that he was shocked when he heard about the tragedy in Itaewon, as a similar tragedy had just happened in Indonesia and raised the alarm in many countries, including South Korea. 

On October 1, a riot and stampede at Kanjuruhan Stadium in East Java, Indonesia, after a football match left more than 130 people dead. 

Zhan said that Halloween celebrations in South Korea are not official activities which may lead to a shortage of precautions. A huge stampede at night may cause great casualties due to breathing problems and sudden cardiac arrest. 

Other cities in the world should draw lessons from the Itaewon tragedy, as similar accident may happen as many countries adjust their COVID-19 prevention measures and may face crowds during holidays, said Zhan.