This story contains graphic content, including a photo that shows covered bodies and video that shows the rescue scene in the aftermath of the deadly incident.
The narrow, steep streets of Itaewon once housed Seoul’s red light district. Catering to a sprawling U.S. military base next door, the neighborhood offered cheap beer, knockoff goods and female company for sale.
But over the past two decades, Itaewon was cleaned up. By the time the American military left the South Korean capital in 2019, it already had a reputation as an open and diverse neighborhood, known for its bright bars, restaurants, cafes and shops.
That reputation made it a natural place to celebrate Halloween, an imported holiday increasingly popular with young South Koreans. An estimated 100,000 people were in the neighborhood on Saturday, the first Halloween since pandemic restrictions were put in place two years ago.
Investigations into what caused the tragedy are still ongoing. But footage from the scene suggest that the tight streets and alleyways that lent the neighborhood its charm hadn’t been able to cope with the scale of the revelers that descended upon it.
Videos show that even hours before the crush began, large numbers of people were congregating in the area. On social media, some said they had arrived in the area by late afternoon because they expected a huge crowd — but even then they were shocked by the size of the crowds.
The situation near the Hamilton Hotel, a four-star property, was particularly dire as crowds tried to squeeze through a narrow alleyway nearby. According to South Korean authorities, the first call for help came at 10:15 p.m., still hours before the usual peak party time in Seoul, with emergency responders arriving just a few minutes later.
Other videos show large numbers of crowds in other alleyways near the Itaewon subway station. Some appeared to be trying to leave the area and were returning to the main street, seeking taxis and other public transportation options. Witnesses speaking to Korea’s KBS news said that cellphone service in the area was spotty because of the large crowds.
Images from later in the evening showed the aftermath of the crush — including people performing chest compressions on young men and women who were not moving.
In some photos, victims are fully covered with blankets on sidewalks and streets.
It is not clear what caused the deadly crush. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has called for an investigation.
Even as the tragedy unfolded in the neighborhood, some nearby bars were packed until at least 5 a.m. — the crowds apparently unaware of the tragedy that had taken place just a short walk away.