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Survivor of Seoul Halloween Crowd Surge describes the strange scene


SEOUL – Kim Seo-jeong, 17 years old, a high school student, is wearing a traditional Chinese dress known as a qipao, holding a folding fan, and her friend has dressed up as a maid as they joined a Halloween crowd in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in central Seoul, on Saturday night.

They were so excited to be there, they missed out on previous Halloween festivals because of the pandemic. But what was expected to be an enjoyable evening soon turned into a nightmare, as thousands of people crammed into a narrow, hilly alley next to the Hamilton Hotel creating a deadly crowd.

Nearly 150 people died in one of the worst peacetime disasters in Korean history.

Kim said in a phone interview: “By the time we entered the alley at 8 p.m., there were already so many people that it was difficult for us to move on. “We gave up an hour later and tried to turn around to go home, but we couldn’t move in the other direction either. There were people pushing from behind us. There was someone in front of us pushing down the hill to go the other way.”

Then a group of young men shoved down the hill, chanting “Push! To push!”

“A person in front of me slipped and fell, pushing me down. The people behind me fell like dominoes,” Kim said. “There are people below me and people falling on top of me. I have difficulty breathing. We screamed and cried for help, but the music was so loud in the alley that our screams were drowned out.”

According to Choi Seong-beom, a senior official of the Seoul fire department, most of those killed were teenagers or in their 20s.

Ms. Kim and her friend tried to crawl out, and the adults dragged them into a pub. Then they left the alley by inching along the walls. What they witnessed along the way was absolute chaos.

The alley was so crowded and noisy that people didn’t seem to know what was going on a few feet away, Ms. Kim said. People are filming the crowd with their smartphones. Some are busy wearing Halloween cosmetics. Others shouted at bar owners, asking when they could get in. Several policemen rushed to the scene, whistling, trying to control the crowd, but to no avail.

Kim herself didn’t know how dangerous the situation was until she was on the subway on her way home from Yongin, south of Seoul, when she checked the internet and saw the news flashing.

“Our people are too insensitive about public safety,” she said. “The government should have sent more police to control the crowd. There was a Halloween crowd in Itaewon last year despite the pandemic. The government should have anticipated a much larger crowd this year, because most of the pandemic restrictions are gone.”

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