Thousands of mourners in South Korea attended candlelit vigils today to commemorate the 156 people killed in a horrific Halloween crowd crush in Seoul as they called for justice for the disaster victims.
The mostly young victims were among the estimated 100,000 that had flocked to the capital Seoul’s popular Itaewon nightlife district to celebrate the first post-pandemic Halloween last weekend.
An uncontrolled surge of people into one narrow alleyway turned into a deadly crush, causing hundreds of people to suffer from cardiac arrest, leaving 156 dead and nearly 200 injured.
Disturbing footage showing emergency rescue officials and citizens providing CPR to unconscious victims quickly went viral on social media.
As public anger continues to build over one of the country’s deadliest peacetime disasters, thousands turned out today for several vigils and protests held across the capital.
South Korean law enforcement officials have admitted that there was insufficient safety planning for such a large crowd and opposition politicians have accused President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government of not taking responsibility for the disaster.
A week on, the authorities have launched an investigation, the national police chief has apologised and so too has the President. But the apologies have not satisfied the public thirst for justice, with at least seven vigil-protests held today across Seoul.
The largest vigil was organised by Candlelight Action and saw two lanes of a major road blocked off to accommodate tens of thousands of protesters who had gathered near the City Hall, with many holding signs that read: ‘Step down, Yoon Suk-yeol.’
Thousands of mourners in South Korea have held candlelit vigils to commemorate the 154 people killed in a horrific Halloween crowd crush in Seoul. Pictured: a woman holds a placard which reads: ‘We are commemorating the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush’
The largest vigil was organised by Candlelight Action and saw two lanes of a major road blocked off to accommodate tens of thousands of protesters who had gathered near the City Hall (pictured)
In the South Korean capital Seoul, some 20,000 people gathered to demand the punishment of those responsible within the government
Many protesters held signs calling for President Yoon Suk-yeol to resign. He is pictured paying his respects in front of a joint memorial altar near the city hall today
Speakers took to the stage to criticise the government while Buddhist monks read prayers and the crowd chanted: ‘Step down, Yoon Suk-yeol’s government! Step down, Yoon Suk-yeol’s government!’
One participant, Yoo Da-eun, 23, said: ‘I think I will live with the anxiety that one day I may suffer such an accident as well.
‘In fact, even when I was coming here, I was worried that something would happen because of the large crowds.’
The organisers – who had also held anti-government rallies prior to the disaster – said they were holding similar vigils in other cities including Busan and Gwangju.
In Itaewon, at a subway exit near the alley at the centre of the Halloween crush, there was a sea of white floral tributes and notes. One read: ‘I will remember you forever.’
Mourners also left chocolates, beer, soju – a Korean alcoholic beverage – and strawberry milk.
Earlier in the day at Itaewon, a crowd of 200 protesters held a minute of silence and then marched through the street holding white chrysanthemums – the flower of grief in Korean culture – and black signs reading: ‘We could have saved the victims, and the government should recognise their responsibility.’
At a candlelight vigil in Jeju – South Korea’s largest island – around 100 mourners gathered outside the city hall. Some lay flowers to pay tribute to the victims.
Reflecting public anger over the tragedy, a woman identified by local media as the mother of one of the victims was seen ripping apart floral wreaths left by the president and Seoul’s mayor at a memorial yesterday.
Piles of flowers were left at a makeshift memorial for the victims outside a subway station in the district of Itaewon, along with a sign displaying the time 6:34, which refers to the first call made to the police on the night of the deadly crush
Hundreds of mourners gathered in Seoul today to commemorate the 156 people killed in the Halloween crowd crush last Saturday
Handwritten tributes formed part of a makeshift memorial for the 156 mostly young victims. One read: ‘I will remember you forever’
Many of the tens of thousands of mourners gathering to pay their respects today held signs which called for the resignation of President Yoon Suk-yeol
‘What’s the point of [these flowers] when they couldn’t protect [our children]? Think about it,’ she said to a local TV station.
‘What’s the point of standing next to these [wreaths] when you let our babies die?’
Police officers were then seen escorting the woman away from the memorial.
President Yoon offered an apology for the disaster yesterday, joining other top officials – including the national police chief and the interior minister – in doing so.
‘As a president who is responsible for the lives and safety of the people, I am deeply saddened and sorry,’ he said.
‘I know that our government and I have a huge responsibility to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.’
Yoon – who is with the conservative People Power Party – has been battling record-low approval ratings since taking office in May, and his political opponents are now taking aim at his government over the Halloween crush.
People chanted slogans as they attended a candlelight vigil in Seoul City Hall Plaza, while some called for the government to take responsibility
One mourner cries as she holds a candle and a white chrysanthemums – the flower of grief in Korean culture – at a vigil in Soeul
The streets of Seoul (pictured) were packed with mourners, while vigils were also held in other cities including Busan and Gwangju
A Japanese monk chants near a makeshift memorial outside a subway station in the district of Itaewon in Seoul
A group of young Koreans held a separate commemoration in central Seoul that organisers said was attended by 500 people.
‘I can’t believe people of my age died just because they wanted to have some fun on Halloween,’ said Park Tae-hoon, 29, one of the organisers and a member of the progressive Jinbo political party.
South Korea has been in a period of national mourning since the tragedy, with flags flying at half-mast and entertainment events cancelled.
Public scrutiny of how the Halloween crowd was managed is mounting, and a wide-ranging probe is underway to determine the exact cause of the crush.
With no single organiser for the Halloween celebrations, the government did not require any of the bars, clubs and restaurants – some located on Itaewon’s narrow alleys and side streets – to submit a safety management plan.
And even though police had estimated beforehand that a crowd of 100,000 would participate, they only deployed 137 officers – compared with the 6,500 sent to another part of Seoul that night for an anti-government protest that was a fraction of the size.
Witnesses who survived the crush described being trapped in narrow, sloping alleyways, scrambling to get out of the suffocating crowd as people piled on top of one another.
Twenty-six foreigners from 14 countries were among those killed in the stampede which occurred at around 10pm local time.
Left: Hundreds of people are packed into an alleyway in Itaewon shortly before the crush on Saturday evening. Right: The same alleyway is seen early on Sunday morning. It remained cordoned off as police continued their investigations into the tragedy
Emergency workers urgently tried to extricate those most in need of medical assistance from the crowd last Saturday
Emergency workers were called in from across the country to deal with one of the largest disasters the country has faced in decades
Paramedics who arrived at the scene became quickly overwhelmed by the number of victims and were begging passers-by to administer first aid, including CPR.
In an interview with local broadcaster YTN, Lee Beom-suk, a doctor at the event, described the chaos.
He said: ‘So many victims’ faces were pale. I could not catch their pulse or breathing and many of them had a bloody nose. When I tried CPR, I also drew blood out of their mouths.’
South Korea announced yesterday that it would be increasing monitoring at crowded subway stations in the wake of last weekend’s tragedy.
‘Similar high-risk situations could be created at subway rush hour,’ Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said, urging police to properly respond to prevent accidents due to overcrowding.
Police will now be deployed to subway stations in the capital to join metro officials in crowd control activities, the prime minister said.
National Police Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun on Tuesday acknowledged crowd control at the site of the disaster was ‘inadequate’, noting police had received multiple reports warning of possible accidents on the night of the surge.
Proper crowd and traffic control by the authorities could have prevented or at least reduced the surge of Halloween partygoers in alleys, experts said.