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‘So many bodies’: Seoul witnesses recall Halloween night of true horror

Police stand guard Sunday at the site of the crowd crush in Seoul's Itaewon neighborhood. (Jean Chung for The Washington Post)

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.

The bodies of several lifeless people were sprawled on the ground in the Itaewon neighborhood on Saturday night, their shirts pulled over their faces after rescuers checked for acute injuries, videos reviewed exclusively by The Washington Post showed.

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.

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Seoul Halloween tragedy
At least 158 people were killed in a crowd crush during Halloween celebrations in the streets and narrow alleys of the Itaewon area of Seoul on the night of Oct. 29. The tragedy has prompted debate over the role of national and local agencies and who should be accountable. South Korea’s police chief said the crowd control was “inadequate.”
Crowd crush
A crowd crush or surge happens when people are packed together in a confined space and there’s movement such as pushing that causes the crowd to fall over. (It’s different from a stampede). See photos and videos showing how the crush happened in Itaewon, and read accounts from those who were there.
The victims
Officials said they have identified all of the victims and mourners have left white flowers and handwritten notes. The victims include 56 men and 102 women, and most were in their 20s and 30s. At least 26 foreign nationals were among the dead.

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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.

How and where the Seoul crush happened

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.”

The Halloween crush in Seoul's Itaewon district killed more than 150 people and injured dozens. South Korea declared a period of national mourning on Oct. 30. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post, Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images/The Washington Post)

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.

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.

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.

Here’s what causes crowd crushes like the deadly one in Seoul

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.”

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