SEOUL — It looked like the apocalypse had hit, one witness said — an evening of panic and disarray that would have sounded like a scene from a horror movie on any other Halloween.
Bodies lay across the ground near the Atelier club, steps from the narrow alley where a crowd crush led to over 150 deaths. People frantically performed CPR in the area, with police running in and out of the scene.
Seoul Halloween tragedy
One man had a red soccer jersey pulled over his face as he was treated with a defibrillator. A woman’s body was covered, with blood on the ground next to her. Several lay in the street with their mouths open, appearing to be dead.
Joshua and Angela Smith, siblings from Florida who booked a room at the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon to experience a Korean Halloween, watched the disaster unfold in the alley from a ninth-floor window.
Joshua first saw three gurneys being wheeled out of the hotel that evening as emergency workers used a hand pump to provide oxygen. A fourth gurney transported a body in a bag, and Angela heard screams coming from around the alley.
“It was horrible, horrible to see,” Joshua said.
They watched from above as people scrambled to save others on the ground, they said. Eventually, at least seven bodies were visible, with police searching their clothes for IDs before bagging or covering them.
“Once we saw them doing that, that’s when the music, the lights, finally got shut down,” Joshua said. “That’s when it turned dark.”
Sophia Akhiyat, a 31-year-old doctor from Florida, was led to the alley by a worried police officer some time after 11 p.m. to help those who had been hurt. She saw people marking the dead with makeup, she said, recalling a “pile of humans” at the mouth of the narrow street preventing ambulances from entering the area.
“These people, I think most of them were near death or dead by the time we were helping them,” she said.
“It was almost post-apocalyptic. It was almost all civilians, no medical personnel, trying to save these people,” said her friend, 24-year-old tech worker Yoon-sung Park. He had helped carry injured people to safer ground, where they could receive CPR.
“People were laid across here all the way down, about a half mile,” he added, gesturing toward Itaewon’s main market street, where emergency responders had wheeled covered corpses into ambulances. “There were so many bodies.”
Dozens of reporters lingered in the streets until about 5 a.m. Sunday morning as officials from the Yongsan Fire Department provided routine updates. Bodies covered in blue sheets were wheeled past the crowd and placed into the back of ambulances in several waves throughout the night; the atmosphere was somber, with journalists speaking in a whisper, if at all, as they waited for updates on what turned out to be a swiftly increasing death toll.
The authorities did not give a time for the next press conference. Media are starting to clear out of the street after at least 146 people were killed. The mood has been somber for hours. After seeing everything we’ve just witnessed, I feel strange leaving this empty road behind. pic.twitter.com/sLirNHSeIT— Kelly Kasulis Cho (@KasulisK) October 29, 2022
By about 10:45 a.m. Sunday, the throng of reporters had returned. Trash littered the sidewalks, with a small plastic jack-o’-lantern remaining in the taped-off alley.
A coffee shop across the street posted a handwritten sign saying that it was closed for the day as a form of condolence for the victims. Shopkeepers and pedestrians swelled into the street around the site of the tragedy throughout the day, some standing in silence as they stared at the unchanging alley before them. Officials in black vests from Korea Disaster Victim Identification waited in the middle of a crosswalk near the Hamilton Hotel, conversing quietly.
Here is the alley where many were trampled last night in Itaewon. No one can walk in there right now and police are guarding it closely. You can see trash and orange Halloween-themed objects still left behind. “Nobody has even cleaned it up yet,” one person said while passing by. pic.twitter.com/1Pcps9vXzB— Kelly Kasulis Cho (@KasulisK) October 30, 2022
Several people recalled seeing only a few police officers in the area before the crush, directing traffic on the main market street near the subway stations. South Korea’s interior minister said Sunday that many officers were assigned to monitor a protest a few miles away, in the Gwanghwamun area, and that the police had not anticipated unusually large crowds on Halloween weekend.
Dano Leemann, a restaurant manager in Itaewon, looked tired, as though he was in disbelief, when he spoke on Sunday. He said he saw no more than a dozen police officers in the area before the crush.
“I saw people dying in front of me,” he said. “I didn’t sleep last night.”