How a night of Halloween revelry turned to disaster in South Korea

Blood is seen among belongings of victims at the scene where many people died and were injured in a stampede during a Halloween festival in Seoul, South Korea, October 30, 2022. (Reuters/Kim Hong-ji)

 The Itaewon district in South Korea’s capital is known to revelers as a place of fun, freedom and openness. But its narrow, steep streets and constrained access points proved a lethal mix for Halloween partygoers who became trapped in a crowd crush that left more than 150 people dead.

RELATED: Halloween stampede in Seoul leaves at least 149 dead

Dubbed “World Food Street” by tourism officials, the warren of alleyways and streets behind the red-brick bulk of the Hamilton Hotel is home to nightclubs, bars, and an eclectic variety of restaurants that reflects Itaewon’s international heritage and draws young Koreans in ever-greater numbers.

As police investigate Saturday’s events, a picture is emerging of how a celebration spiraled into disaster — leaving a nation in collective grief and lingering questions about crowd management and responses by police and local authorities.

The National Police Commissioner, Yoon Hee-keun, acknowledged that crowd control was inadequate, and President Yoon Suk-yeol said it was critical to improve emergency responses. Police on Tuesday released transcripts of emergency calls that showed increasing distress among revelers as the crowd swelled, providing nearly four hours of warnings that went mostly unheeded.

This account of the tragedy was pieced together from the testimony of more than 15 witnesses, police transcripts, visual evidence and open-source material shared on social media that was verified by Reuters. Some of those who spoke to Reuters did so on the condition of full or partial anonymity, citing personal trauma or privacy reasons.

RELATED: Trauma of South Korea Halloween party crush is pervasive, expert says

The evening had begun with optimism. South Korea was marking Halloween almost free of the COVID-19 restrictions that had dampened recent years’ festivities, and Itaewon was ready to party. The crowd was mostly young; many wore colorful costumes as they converged on the area with friends.

Authorities say more than twice as many people left Itaewon metro station on Saturday than the year before, with as many as 100,000 estimated to be in the area. Three narrow streets and alleyways leading to the station were particularly crammed.

The scale of the crowd was apparent to Linda, a 20-year-old exchange student from Latvia, when she got off the metro at Itaewon shortly before 10 p.m.

“The movement was slow, but bearable,” she said.

Linda and her friends headed north along part of the World Food Street — where booths had been set up for face painting and other Halloween crafts, further cramping the space — and turned left, down a street filled with clubs behind the Hamilton.

“We thought that soon we will reach some kind of an end of the clubbing street where there will be not as much people,” she said. “We were wrong.”

There were too many people to move easily, but with the night still young, most seemed relatively sober, said a 29-year-old South Korean graduate student who asked not to be named.

Around the same time, Janelle Story, a 35-year-old teacher from the United States, left the station and headed west before turning north into a narrow street. She had joined a pub crawl.

“Walking through the crowd at 9:30 was shocking, but it felt almost slow and steady,” she said.

What none of these witnesses realized as they inched toward the Hamilton Hotel was that in the swarm ahead, revelers increasingly fearful of the crowd’s density had been calling police for hours, with little response.

Emergency calls

According to police, 11 emergency calls were made from Itaewon before the crush turned deadly.

READ: Emergency calls reveal growing desperation before South Korea Halloween crush

“There are people going up and down that alley, and it’s very worrying … people might get crushed,” said the first caller at 6:34 p.m., describing an alley on the west side of the Hamilton Hotel where most of the casualties would occur about four hours later.

Police said they sent officers in response to four of the calls, but were still determining what they did when they arrived.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said on Wednesday that police must “provide a clear and transparent explanation to the public”. Local authorities said they took no steps to plan for crowd control because their protocols are based on events with a central organizer who typically asks for government help.

Witnesses who had converged behind the Hamilton Hotel told Reuters they felt a palpable change in the crowd shortly after 10 p.m.

The final call released by police came at 10:11 p.m.

“(People) are going to be crushed to death, everyone’s going crazy,” the unidentified caller says, as the transcript noted screams heard over the phone.

Linda said she initially thought there was a fight going on because club workers were filming the crowd.

“I felt panic starting to fill the air. Pushing started, we were pushed backwards.”

Rather than a sudden rush or stampede, the crowd density had increased, making movement impossible; survivors said they found it hard to breathe. Some tried to scale buildings to escape. Others shouted, cried or cursed.

“I’m not a tall person, I was literally just trapped by people on my back and front,” said the Korean student, “people were pushing me in every direction and I could not breathe well.”

Linda and her friends found a small wall to perch on at the top of a sloping alleyway on the western side of the Hamilton.

It was there, around 10:35 p.m., that she saw the first police officer, standing on something and shouting for the crowd to move away from the hotel.

“We saw the policeman up close for a second — he was covered in sweat, screaming as loud as he can, but almost helpless,” she said.

Linda and her friends decided to make a run for it. But it was hard to remain upright.

“Then the scariest moment happened — all the air disappeared for a few seconds and breathing was only possible if you could stretch a little higher than the crowd,” she said.

Pile of bodies

Rescue workers work at the scene where a stampede during Halloween festivities killed an injured many people at the popular Itaewon district in Seoul, South Korea, October 30, 2022. (Yonhap via Reuters)

In the sloping alleyway next to the Hamilton’s tall brick walls, which narrows from about 7 metres at the top to less than 3.6 metres at the bottom, people began to fall.

“A person right next to me fell, but then people behind me continued to push me, then more people fell down and kind of piled up on one another,” said another 30-year-old graduate school student from Seoul. “I screamed at people who were pushing me: ‘Don’t push! People fell!'”

People landed on or under others in a crush that left a pile of bodies wedged between buildings, some at the bottom appearing unconscious or dead. Some reached out to a small group of emergency workers who had arrived on the scene and spent more than an hour struggling to free them.

On Monday, police said they were investigating conflicting reports that a group of men started shoving just before the alley crush, but that no single cause had been identified beyond overcrowding.

Yoon, the police commissioner, said on Tuesday that even as people called police to report the unfolding situation, officers did not properly respond until it was too late.

Yongsan fire authorities said they received their first emergency call at 10:24 p.m. and dispatched the first four ambulances at 10:27 p.m. Five minutes later, they deployed nine more ambulances and several fire trucks.

As calls for help flooded in, by 11:30 p.m. authorities were calling for dozens more ambulances from across the Seoul area.

Flashing lights illuminated survivors as they huddled under blankets on Itaewon’s main street.

As of Thursday, the death toll stood at 156 with 172 injured. Among the dead, dozens of whom suffered cardiac arrest, were at least six school students, as well as 26 foreign nationals from 14 countries.

Crowd density

A street in Itaewon district is pictured full of people before a stampede during Halloween festivities killed and injured many in Seoul, South Korea, in this image released by Yonhap on October 30, 2022. (Yonhap via Reuters)

On Saturday, 81,573 people disembarked at Itaewon station, according to Seoul Metro, up from 31,878 the year before.

Proper crowd and traffic control by the authorities could have prevented or at least reduced the surge of Halloween partygoers in alleys, experts said. Instead, authorities acknowledged that preparations focused on COVID-19 measures and conducting drug busts.

Paek Seung-joo, professor of fire and disaster protection at Open Cyber University of Korea, said that based on police estimates there may have been up to 12 people per square metre in the sloping alleyway next to the Hamilton, where most of the casualties occurred.

“You can’t move your arms. You can’t move your body. If that happens, I am being pushed along by the force of the crowd itself,” he said.

In that situation, crowd characteristics change, Paek said.

“People do things that they don’t do under normal, reasonable circumstances, like booing and screaming,” he said. “And then you have competitive behavior, which refers to a minimum of action to protect yourself in that narrow space.”

Finally, people trapped in those situations are often unable to rationally accept instructions, Paek said.

“In terms of management, we need to control and reduce the density so that we don’t get to that point in the first place,” he said.

Police said they had only 137 officers in Itaewon that night. That was slightly more than previous years, but far less than the 4,000 deployed at political rallies in central Seoul the same day. Most of the police in Itaewon appear to have been tasked with traffic control or crime prevention, according to authorities and witnesses.

Witnesses told Reuters they saw police near the main street directing traffic, but few or none in the alleyways.

Interior Minister Lee Sang-min initially said deploying more police would not have prevented the disaster, but other officials have since acknowledged deficiencies.


As people gradually broke or were pulled free, bystanders and a handful of emergency workers performed CPR on dozens of unconscious people splayed across the streets.

Rescue workers work at the scene where a stampede during Halloween festivities killed and injured many people at the popular Itaewon district in Seoul, South Korea, October 30, 2022. (Yonhap via Reuters)

Around 11:20 p.m., Park Keun-ho, owner of the rooftop pub Havana about two blocks from the alley crush, saw bodies being carried through the street below. He ran down to help.

He started to perform CPR on one young woman, remembering the procedure from TV, he said. When she regained consciousness, he urged her to stay awake and told her: “Don’t close your eyes!”

The surges and shockwaves of bodies pressing through the crowds were not limited to the alley where many of the deaths occurred, with casualties reported in several other narrow locations. Survivors said it took them more than an hour in some cases to escape.

About 50 meters away from the alley, Story said her pub crawl group had no idea what was happening.

“The tide of people that I was caught in…was actually moving away from the alley,” she said. “I only realized the next day when trying to make sense of what happened that we were probably caught in a stampede of people running away in fear.”

Throughout the mayhem, loud music continued to blast from bars and clubs, drowning out calls for help and instructions from police, and leaving many people nearby initially oblivious to the tragedy unfolding.

“A moment I will never forget — when we were gasping for air, trying to stand and not fall — (was) people sitting in the lounge looking into our eyes while drinking, dancing and laughing,” Linda said.


About 30 meters from the top of the alley, 32-year-old architect Ken Fallas said he heard screams, but they were difficult to make out over the music.

Some police arrived and Fallas said he saw the first people on the ground as officers began trying to resuscitate them.

“We thought it was something inside a club, or a fire, or even a fight, we didn’t know that it was because of a stampede,” he said.

“People tried to help but everyone was scared, no-one understood what was going on,” he said.

Social media soon filled with shocking images of bodies laid in rows on the street, many with clothes awry from the crush and efforts to administer CPR. Later they would be draped with blue cloths before being taken away to morgues, where distraught families would collect them.

The full scale of the horror in Itaewon shocked the nation. Among the dead, most were younger than 30. Nearly two-thirds were women.

“I still see those images in front of my eyes when I sleep at night,” said Park, the pub owner.

—Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang, Daewoung Kim, Joyce Lee, Minwoo Park, Hyun Young Yi, Soo-hyang Choi, Nur-Azna Sanusi, Jack Kim and Hyonhee Shin Editing by David Crawshaw