“How could this happen?”: Seoul’s Halloween of Terror


Two weeks ago, Halloween was celebrated across the world, accompanied by its traditional spooky costumes and decoration. This Halloween, however, an actual festival of horrors took place in Seoul, South Korea’s capital when tens of thousands of people flooded the city’s streets to celebrate. A crowd crush during the Saturday night festivities resulted in casualties counting up to 156, while more than 100 were injured on different severity scales. The incident occurred in a famous nightlife district, Itaewon, resulting in the vast majority of the victims being in their 20s, including 19 exchange students, as stated by Choi Seong-beom, chief of Seoul’s Yongsan fire department.

The victims

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Victim’s moaning about their loved ones who died in the incident (iStock, 2022)

More specifically, two out of the 153 identified victims who lost their lives that night were US exchange students. Anne Gieske, a nursing student from the University of Kentucky who was studying abroad this semester as part of her student exchange program, was found dead at the scene of the incident. Parents, faculty members of the University of Kentucky, friends, and the two other UoK education abroad students that were present at the incident, but have been contacted. They are safe, mourn her loss and send their condolences.

“The world is a darker place without Steven,” says Steven Blesi’s father in another statement, mourning the loss of his son at the horrifying events that Saturday night in Seoul. Steven Blesi was a business exchange student from Kennesaw State University, among 11 other students participating in the same education abroad program that has been reported safe. The US Embassy in Seoul says that “Our staff in Seoul and colleagues in the United States are working tirelessly to provide consular assistance to the victims of last night’s incident and their families.” 

Among the two American college students, 17 more foreigners were found dead due to the incident, including people from China, Iran, France, Australia, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Norway, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Austria, and Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, three South Korean military personnel were declared deceased due to the incident, with four others being found severely injured and in need of immediate medical assistance.

The incident

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Map of the deadly crush (CNN,2022)

The incident took place around 22:15 on Saturday night, and survivors of the events reported seeing people shoved through small alleys in the popular nightlife zone, falling over each other, and being trampled. In the midst of all the chaos, CPR was performed both by bystanders and medical professionals on the streets, and the city’s emergency personnel were all mobilized, according to officials. Around 520 firefighters, 1100 police officers, and 70 government employees were among the 1700 people who were quickly dispatched to the scene from all around the nation. According to a statement from the National Fire Agency, all of Seoul’s emergency personnel had been activated.

In a previous update, the Itaewon Fire Station stated that 21 persons were confirmed to have passed away during the surge from cardiac arrest and that their bodies were being sent to hospitals or a gym so that grieving relatives could identify them.  Witnesses to the event who were staying in the adjacent Hamilton hotel as well as the nearby houses confirmed the chaos that dominated the streets of Itaewon, with bystanders assisting with CPR and others crying next to dead bodies as a myriad of paramedics checked dozens of motionless individuals with blue blankets. In the midst of all this, the Seoul Metropolitan Government issued emergency text messages urging people in the area to swiftly return home.

The aftermath

The actual cause of the congestion is yet unknown, however, witnesses claim that partygoers had been crammed into the district’s small streets, making it difficult to move around. Videos found all across social media taken earlier in the evening in the same location as the reported surge to show a crowded crowd slowly going down the street shoulder to shoulder.

This event constitutes one of the country’s biggest tragedies, raising questions about its public standards. What was once an initial panic that people in Seoul woke up to the Sunday morning after the disaster has transformed into “nationwide devastation” and “calls for accountability.” Authorities claimed on Monday that they lacked any procedures for handling such gatherings without a clear organizer. South Korea’s Prime Minister later revealed the “lack of deep institutional knowledge and consideration for crowd management.” The chief of the national police characterized the police response as “inadequate” while the chief of police at the Yongsan police station has been suspended and replaced.

Political leaders from all over the world, including the United States, Canada, France, the UK, and Germany, express their condolences to the families of the victims, as well as their wishes for the swift recovery of the injured survivors, many of whom are still being hospitalized in critical condition. Seoul itself is still in disbelief about the incident, as people still pay their respects in silence at the memorial site created at the spot where the events took place. “How could this happen?” is a quote from Kim Ye-Ji, a young woman from Seoul who arrived to pay her respects despite not being present at the tragedy, and it remains the title of many articles reporting on the stampede. “I feel traumatized now, and don’t know what to do. I hope we will all be able to heal as a community,” she says, a wish the global community sends to the people of Seoul, the injured victims, as well as all the people who lost their loved ones that night.

Featured cover image:Gettyimages

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