SEOUL: Party-goers in costumes fleeing in panic, desperate attempts at first aid on the sidewalks, scores of bodies lined up under makeshift shrouds: in Seoul's lively Itaewon district, a Halloween festival turned to tragedy Saturday.
Nearly 150 people were killed in a crowd surge and stampede, the cause of which is still unclear, in this popular, cosmopolitan district of the South Korean capital, located close to a former US military base and renowned for its bars and clubs.
Tens of thousands of people -- mostly young, and many wearing elaborate Halloween costumes -- had descended upon the district Saturday night, for the first major Halloween celebration since most Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.
"My friend said: something terrible is happening outside," said Jeon Ga-eul, 30, who was having a drink at a bar at the moment the stampede hit.
"I said: what are you talking about? And then I went outside to see and there were people doing CPR in the street."
The district, which was immortalised by the popular 2020 K-Drama hit Itaewon Class, is a warren of steeply sloping, twisted alleyways on either side of the main road.
The crowd was exceptionally dense on Saturday night, eyewitnesses told AFP, with Jeon saying that even ahead of the disaster, he had felt unsafe.
"There were so many people just being pushed around and I got caught in the crowd and I couldn’t get out at first too," he said.
"I felt like an accident was bound to happen."
The stampede took place in a narrow alley near the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon.
Faced with a huge number of victims, the first emergency responders were asking passers-by to administer first aid and perform CPR on victims in the streets, just next to the chaos.
The bodies of people who had been crushed or trampled to death lay in rows, covered with blankets or makeshift shrouds.
Hundreds of ambulances lined up in front of the Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital, which is near Itaewon and where a large number of the victims were taken.
At the scene, which had been cordoned off by the police and was bathed in the red from hundreds of flashing lights, music continued to play from some bars.
Dazed passers-by sat on the sidewalk, checking their phones. Others comforted themselves, hugging each other even as others -- seemingly unaware of the scale of the tragedy that had unfolded just next to them, continued to celebrate.
Police investigators scoured the debris-strewn alleyways.
"It's always crowded, but nothing like this has ever happened before," Ju Young Possamai, 24, a bartender in the Itaewon district told AFP.
"I've been to a lot of Halloween parties in Korea," he said, adding: "I never thought that something like this could happen in Korea, especially in Itaewon."