SEOUL: More than 150 people were killed and scores more were injured in a stampede at a packed Halloween event in central Seoul late Saturday, officials said, in one of South Korea's worst peacetime accidents.
The crowd surge and crush happened in the capital's popular Itaewon district, where local reports said as many as 100,000 people had gone to celebrate Halloween on Saturday night, clogging the area's narrow alleyways and winding streets.
Eye-witnesses described scrambling to get out of the suffocating crowd as people ended up piling on top of one another, with paramedics, quickly overwhelmed by the number of victims, asking passers-by to administer first aid.
"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," 30-year-old Jeon Ga-eul told AFP. "I felt like an accident was bound to happen."
The fire department told AFP that at least 149 people, including two foreigners, had been killed in the stampede, which occurred around 10pm (8pm Thailand time).
The ministry of interior said that an estimated 150 people had been injured, as of 6am local time.
"The high number of casualties was the result of many being trampled during the Halloween event," fire official Choi Seong-beom told reporters at the scene Sunday morning, adding that the death toll could climb.
AFP photos from the scene showed scores of bodies spread on the pavement covered by bed sheets and emergency workers dressed in orange vests loading even more bodies on stretchers into ambulances.
"People were layered on top of others like a tomb. Some were gradually losing their consciousness while some looked dead by that point," one eye-witness told the Yonhap News Agency.
In an interview with local broadcaster YTN, Lee Beom-suk, a doctor who administered first aid to the victims described scenes of tragedy and chaos.
"When I first attempted CPR there were two victims lying on the pavement. But the number exploded soon after, outnumbering first responders at the scene," Lee said. "Many bystanders came to help us with CPR."
"It's hard to put in words to describe," he added. "So many victims' faces were pale. I could not catch their pulse or breath and many of them had a bloody nose. When I tried CPR, I also pumped blood out of their mouths."
US 'stands with' South Korea
Twitter user @janelles_story shared a video that she said depicted scenes from Itaewon shortly before the stampede began, in which hundreds of young people, some clad in pirate, cowboy and other Halloween costumes, are seen in a narrow street lined with bars and cafes.
The crowd appears in good spirits and calm at first, but then a commotion begins and people start being pushed and pressed into one another. Screams and gasps are heard and a female voice cries out in English "Shit, shit!" followed by "Oh my god, oh my god!"
The fire department's Choi said the victims' bodies were being transferred to a gym not far from the site of the stampede and to area hospitals to be identified.
Local television showed scores of ambulances streaming to the Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital, where some of the victims had been taken.
President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered officials to dispatch first aid teams and to swiftly secure hospital beds for those affected, the presidential office said.
Meanwhile, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, who was on a visit to Europe, decided to return home in the wake of the accident, Yonhap reported, citing city officials.
In Washington, Seoul's staunch ally, US President Joe Biden said America "stands with" South Korea after the tragedy.
"We grieve with the people of the Republic of Korea and send our best wishes for a quick recovery to all those who were injured," Biden said in a statement, adding that the United States "stands with the Republic of Korea during this tragic time."
Emergency first aid
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.
Ju Young Possamai, a bartender in the Itaewon district, said he had been to several Halloween celebrations in Korea and was shocked by the tragedy.
"It was very sad to see something that we never, never expected," Possamai, 24, told AFP. "It's always crowded, but nothing like this has ever happened before."
This year's celebration is the first since the pandemic broke out in 2020 at which South Koreans have not been mandated to wear face masks outdoors.