- A deadly crowd crush in Seoul led to 156 deaths on Halloween weekend.
- Videos posted online showed people pressed against each other, struggling to breathe.
- “None of it was the cause of the crowd — this was a failure to create a safe environment,” a crowd-science expert said.
Saurav Bajoria, an Indian expat living in Seoul, arrived at Itaewon at around 10 p.m on October 29. The streets were packed to the brim for Halloween festivities, but Itaewon was always popular on weekends, so Bajoria didn’t think much of the crowds.
Dressed in a devil’s costume and cap, he began his night eating ice cream, chatting with friends, and moving between pubs and eateries along Itaewon’s tight alleys.
“You should come join us,” he texted his wife at one point, he told Insider.
About an hour into their night, Bajoria and his friends glimpsed a body being carried down a nearby street. They assumed it was part of a Halloween act.
“Another passed by, then another came. Then 10 came,” he said. “That was when I realized something was wrong.”
In the ensuing days, the world watched in horror as reports emerged of how an evening of celebration in Itaewon’s narrow streets turned into a deadly human crush that left 156 people dead and at least 151 injured.
The pushing in the crowd felt ‘just like ocean waves’
Zara Lily and her fiance Yun Jinhyeong, clad in zombie outfits, arrived at Itaewon early for a coffee. Even at 4 p.m., the streets were buzzing with partygoers dressed to the nines in their Halloween costumes.
“People would occasionally stop to take pictures,” Lily told Insider. “This slowed down the walking traffic, which resulted in the crowd pushing those people to make them move faster.”
As night fell, the crowd grew.
Around 10:25 p.m, Lily and Yun left a club called Runway and stepped into the street. That’s when they realized how dangerous the crowding had become.
“There were many times where there was a wave of pushing which made people fall forwards and then backward, just like ocean waves,” Lily said.
All the pushing came to a stop when sirens and flashing lights filled the air, Lily said.
“People were shouting: ‘Make way, get out of the way,’ so that they can take the injured people to the ambulance vans,” Lily said. “It was an absolute nightmare, something you would see in a disaster movie.”
Minutes earlier, hundreds of people had begun to fall like dominoes two streets away from her on a slope near the Hamilton Hotel. Since it was connected to a street of bars and clubs, the alley had people flowing in from three directions, G. Keith Still, a visiting professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England, told Insider.
“The problem is that people at the bottom can’t get out because of the weight of the people on top of them,” Still said. “We know from previous studies that if you lose the ability to breathe, you have four to six minutes until you have major organs shutting down.”
Tucked away in a noisy side alley, Bajoria was unaware that a crowd collapse was happening less than 100 feet away.
He wandered toward the Hamilton Hotel but was stopped by a policeman urging revelers to turn back. Some people didn’t take the officer seriously, thinking he was in costume, Bajoria said.
Some people didn’t take the officer seriously, thinking he was in costume, Bajoria said.
It’s nearly impossible to get a full picture of what’s happening in a high-density crowd when you’re in the thick of it, Still said.
“It happens in crowds all the time. You will not know what’s happening three or four meters ahead of you. People will not be aware that there is distress just a few meters in front of them,” Still added.
“You’ll not be aware of it until it’s too late,” he said.
Failure to create a safe environment
It was only when Bajoria meandered out onto the main road around 11:30 p.m. that he saw the extent of the tragedy.
Dozens of bodies were splayed out on the asphalt, while party-goers and medics alike frantically administered CPR. Along the road, white and yellow sheets were draped over the bodies.
“That was when I lost my nerves,” he said. He uploaded a video of the mass resuscitation effort that night.
According to emergency call transcripts released by the police on Tuesday night, calls to the Seoul police force trickled in as early as 6:34 p.m., per Korean daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo.
“There are a lot of people going up and down the alley, I’m very nervous,” one caller said, according to a Bloomberg translation of the earliest call. “People might be crushed since they cannot come down but people keep coming up. I barely escaped. There are too many people. I think you should take control.”
By 10:43 p.m., emergency services had received at least 81 calls reporting the crush, per Agence France-Presse. First responders on the scene were overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Authorities declared a “first-stage emergency response order,” which they upgraded to the third stage by midnight.
Lily said she didn’t see any safety measures in place.
“There was no security looking after us. There were no officials wearing Hi-Vis jackets making sure we are okay,” Lily said. “We were all alone and just trying to survive and save our own lives.”
After the tragedy, a top public safety official and a police division head admitted that authorities did not have a safety plan in place for events without an organizer, like the Halloween celebrations.
Police later said there were 137 officers on site that night, but that they were deployed to handle crime and “illegal activities,” not to manage crowds.
Crowd-science expert Still said that managing a major crowd effectively only takes a few police officers who are well-trained and well-positioned.
“None of it was the cause of the crowd — this was a failure to create a safe environment,” he said.
Stunned by the deaths, South Korea has since entered a national period of mourning by order of President Yoon Suk-yeol. An altar has been set up at Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall, where thousands have laid flowers for the dead.
Through the chaos on the night of October 29, Lily and her fiance waited on a sidewalk for two hours for the crowd to disperse. It was impossible to get a taxi, so they wandered to a convenience store, then a late-night restaurant, before walking to the subway station to wait for the first train home at 5:30 am.
Bajoria drove home immediately after he saw the bodies on the main road.
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” he said. “Just so many dead. Those scenes still play in my head, every one hour, every few hours.”