The Tragic Seoul Halloween Crowd Crush Explained

On October 29, 2022, a deadly crowd surge killed over 150 people and injured scores more at a Halloween event in a popular party district in Seoul, South Korea (via The New York Times). As many as 100,000 revelers were crowded into the city's Itaewon district, a popular destination (especially among younger people) filled with bars, restaurants, and clubs. Unfortunately, the district is also home to narrow alleyways, and it was in one such passage that many people were trapped; in addition, the district was so crowded with vehicle traffic that it was difficult for ambulances to get to the dead and dying.

It was the latest in a series of crowd-related deaths in the country going back to 1959 when 67 people died at a Busan Stadium. According to the Korea Herald, the 2022 incident was the worst peacetime disaster in the country since the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, which claimed 304 lives.

The Itaewon District

According to the book "Migration and Diversity in Asian Contexts," Seoul's Itaewon district is centrally located in the city and, at one time, was not far from a U.S. military installation. Its proximity to the base helped it develop as a recreational destination and become a place where visitors could get things that wouldn't otherwise be available in Korea (specifically, foreign cuisine). To this day, the district contains restaurants that offer non-Korean offerings (per Tripadvisor). These days, the area is also filled with nightclubs, bars, and shops, many of which are based on more Western styles and attitudes (via NPR News).

Being a central neighborhood in an ancient Asian city, however, means that Itaewon is also filled with narrow streets and alleyways; according to Hindustan Times, the alleyway in which the fatal crowd surge took place is only 13 feet (4 meters) wide. By comparison, the typical American two-way street is over 20 feet wide, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

Halloween in South Korea

According to Cultural Atlas, over half of the population of South Korea doesn't identify with any religion, although a not-insignificant percentage of Koreans (about 28 percent) are Christian. Halloween is, of course, a sort-of Christian holiday — or more accurately, its origins exist at the hazy intersection of Christianity and paganism. As such, CBS News notes that it's not generally a big deal in South Korea (children rarely trick-or-treat there, for example). The holiday is, however, huge with the country's young adults, and Itaewon is Seoul's top destination for Halloween revelry, particularly due to the multinational "vibe" in the district. "There's always a lot of people in Itaewon, but the peak is during the Halloween season. Whenever Halloween rolls around, everyone, including celebrities, go to Itaewon," survivor Jia Shin told NPR.

That Halloween is big with Korea's younger generation is, unfortunately, reflected in the death toll from the Halloween crush: According to CNN, the victims were "mostly teenagers and young adults."

What Happened?

According to The Guardian, the 2022 iteration of the annual Itaewon Halloween partying was considerably busier than in previous years: one attendee told Reuters that it was "at least 10 times more crowded than usual." An estimated 100,000 people had assembled near the Hamilton Hotel, the biggest crowd since the easing of COVID-19 restrictions. At around 10:20 p.m. local time, "a large number" of people somehow fell in a sloped, narrow alleyway (via Reuters). According to Al Jazeera, a rumor had spread amongst the crowd that a celebrity had been sighted nearby, while Yonhap News Agency reports that there also may have been gossip about drug-laced candy being handed out. Regardless, too many people were packed into far too narrow a street; further, since the street is sloped, individuals at the top began to fall onto individuals below, according to The Guardian.

Soon, ambulances were dispatched, but the area was so crowded that they had difficulty getting to the scene. Meanwhile, regular people were doing their best to help, as well — BBC News reports that attendees who knew CPR performed the maneuver on unconscious and dying individuals.

The Aftermath

As of October 31, 2022, the dust is still settling from the Itaewon tragedy. Kyodo News reports that the official death toll, so far, is 155 (which includes the deaths of 26 non-Koreans), and 152 were injured. The Korean government has launched an investigation into the incident, and President Yoon Suk-yeol, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon have all participated in a public mourning ritual. The country has also entered into a mourning period, during which schools will refrain from school trips and large-scale activities (via CBS News).

In a statement on Twitter, U.S. President Joe Biden noted that he and First Lady Jill Biden were "devastated" to learn of the incident and the deaths that it caused, adding, "Our hearts go out to their loved ones in this time of grief, and we continue to pray for the recovery of all who were injured."