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US students among at least 150 dead in Seoul Halloween surge

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(NewsNation) — South Korean police investigated on Monday what caused a crowd surge that killed more than 150 people including 26 foreigners during Halloween festivities in Seoul in the country’s worst disaster in years, as President Yoon Suk Yeol and tens of thousands of others paid respects to the dead at special mourning sites.

Saturday’s disaster was concentrated in a sloped, narrow alley in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood, a popular nightlife district, with witnesses and survivors recalling a “hell-like” chaos with people falling on each other like dominoes. They said the entire Itaewon area was jammed with slow-moving vehicles and partygoers clad in Halloween costumes, making it impossible for rescuers and ambulances to reach the crammed alleys in time.

Police said they’ve launched a 475-member task force to investigate the crush.

Officers have obtained videos taken by about 50 security cameras in the area and are also analyzing video clips posted on social media. They have interviewed more than 40 witnesses and survivors so far, senior police officer Nam Gu-Jun told reporters Monday.

Other police officers said they are trying to find exactly when and where the crowd surge started and how it developed. They said a team of police officers and government forensic experts searched the Itaewon area on Monday.

“The government will thoroughly investigate the cause of the incident and do its best to make necessary improvements of systems to prevent a similar accident from recurring,” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said at the start of a government meeting on the disaster.

Concerned relatives raced to hospitals in search of their loved ones Sunday.

Ninety-seven of the dead were women and 56 were men. More than 80% of the dead are in their 20s and 30s, but at least four were teenagers.

A University of Kentucky student was among the victims, NewsNation affiliate Fox 56 reported.

UK President Eli Capilouto announced Sunday that Anne Gieske, a nursing junior from northern Kentucky, was studying abroad in South Korea when she died.

The Beechwood Independent Schools released a statement saying it “is heartbroken to learn of the loss of 2021 graduate.”

On Twitter, Georgia native Steve Blesi announced the death of his son Steven, who was spending the semester studying abroad in the South Korean capital.

“We just got confirmation our son died,” he wrote. “Thank you for the outpouring of love. We need time to grieve.”

Kennesaw State University issued a statement saying, “Blesi, an international business major, was one of 11 students from KSU in South Korea as part of a study abroad program. All other KSU students are reported safe.”

Kennesaw State University President Kathy Schwaig said, “On behalf of the entire Kennesaw State community, our thoughts and prayers go out to Steven’s family and friends as they mourn this incomprehensible loss.”

At least 20 of the dead are foreigners from China, Russia, Iran and elsewhere.

An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon for the country’s biggest outdoor Halloween festivities since the pandemic began. The South Korean government had eased COVID-19 restrictions in recent months.

“I still can’t believe what has happened. It was like a hell,” said Kim Mi Sung, an official at a nonprofit organization that promotes tourism in Itaewon.

Kim said she performed CPR on 10 people who were unconscious and nine of them were declared dead on the spot. Kim said the 10 were mostly women wearing witch outfits and other Halloween costumes.

The crowd surge is the country’s worst disaster in years. As of Sunday evening, officials put the death toll at 153 and the number of injured people at 133. The Ministry of the Interior and Safety said the death count could further rise as 37 of the injured people were in serious conditions.

Witnesses said the streets were so densely clogged with people and slow-moving vehicles that it was practically impossible for emergency workers and ambulances to reach the alley near Hamilton Hotel swiftly.

The bodies of the dead were being kept at 42 hospitals in Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi province, according to Seoul City, which said it will instruct crematories to burn more bodies per day as part of plans to support funeral proceedings.

While Halloween isn’t a traditional holiday in South Korea — where children rarely go trick-or-treating — it’s still a major attraction for young adults, and costume parties at bars and clubs have become hugely popular in recent years.

Itaewon, near where the former headquarters of U.S. military forces in South Korea operated for decades before moving out of the capital in 2018, is an expat-friendly district known for its trendy bars, clubs and restaurants. It’s the city’s marquee Halloween destination.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol declared a one-week national mourning period on Sunday and ordered flags at government buildings and public offices to fly at half-staff. During a televised speech, Yoon said supporting the families of the victims, including their funeral preparations, and the treatment of the injured would be a top priority for his government.

“This is really devastating. The tragedy and disaster that need not have happened took place in the heart of Seoul amid Halloween (celebrations),” Yoon said during the speech. “I feel heavy hearted and cannot contain my sadness as a president responsible for the people’s lives and safety.”

After the speech, Yoon visited the Itaewon alley where the disaster occurred. Local TV footage showed Yoon inspecting the alley filled with trash and being briefed by emergency officials.

It was not immediately clear what led the crowd to surge into the narrow, downhill alley. One survivor said many people fell and toppled one another “like dominoes” after they were pushed by others.

World leaders offered condolences, including Pope Francis.

“We pray the Risen Lord also for those — especially young people — who died last night in Seoul, due to the tragic consequences of a sudden crush,” Francis said after his Sunday’s Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square, inviting the crowd to pray for the victims.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted that “All our thoughts are with those currently responding and all South Koreans at this very distressing time.” Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, tweeted that reports of the disaster were “heartbreaking” and said Washington “stands ready to provide the Republic of Korea with any support it needs.”

Among the 20 foreign dead are four from China; three from Russia; two from Iran and the United States; and one each from Vietnam, Austria, Norway, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka. The Interior Ministry said it wasn’t informed of the nationalities of the four other foreigners.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry said two of its nationals were among the dead, while the French Foreign Ministry said one French national also died during the Itaewon tragedy.

The last South Korean disaster this deadly also hit young people the hardest. In April 2014, 304 people, mostly high school students, died in a ferry sinking. The sinking exposed lax safety rules and regulatory failures. It was partially blamed on excessive and poorly fastened cargo and a crew poorly trained for emergency situations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.