SEOUL — Kim Seo-jeong, 17, a high school student, was wearing the traditional Chinese dress known as a qipao, holding a folding fan, and her friend was dressed as a maid as they joined a Halloween crowd in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in central Seoul, on Saturday evening.
They were excited to be there, having missed previous Halloween festivities because of the pandemic. But what was expected to be an enjoyable evening out soon turned into a nightmare, as thousands of people cramming into a narrow, hilly alley next to the Hamilton Hotel created a deadly crowd crush.
Nearly 150 people died in one of the worst peacetime disasters in South Korean history.
“By the time we entered the alley at 8 p.m., there were already so many people we could hardly take a step forward,” said Ms. Kim in a telephone interview. “We gave up an hour later and tried to turn around to go home, but we could not move in the other direction either. There were people pushing from behind us. There were people in front of us pushing down the hill to go in the other direction.”
Later, a group of young men made a hard shove down the hill, chanting “Push! Push!”
“A person in front of me slipped and fell, pushing me down as well. People behind me fell like dominoes,” Ms. Kim said. “There were people beneath me and people falling on top of me. I could hardly breathe. We shouted and screamed for help, but the music was so loud in the alley our shouts were drowned.”
Most of the dead were teenagers or in their 20s, according to Choi Seong-beom, a senior official at Seoul’s fire department.
Ms. Kim and her friend managed to crawl out, and adults pulled them into a tavern. They later left the alley by inching along the walls. What they witnessed along the way was sheer chaos.
The alley was so crowded and noisy that people didn’t seem to know what was happening several feet away, Ms. Kim said. People were filming the crowd with their smartphones. Some were busy putting on Halloween cosmetics. Others were shouting at bar owners, asking when they could get in. The few police officers who rushed to the scene, blowing whistles, tried to control the crowd, but to no avail.
Ms. Kim herself didn’t know how deadly the episode had been until she was in the subway on her way back home in Yongin, south of Seoul, when she checked the internet and saw news flashes.
“Our people are so 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 bigger crowd this year, because most of the pandemic restrictions are gone.”