Forensics investigators examined a debris-littered alley in South Korea on Monday while questions swirled over why 154 people were killed in the country’s deadliest crushing disaster.
President Yoon Suk Yeol announced a weeklong national mourning period following the Saturday crowd surge that occurred as tens of thousands of mostly young Halloween revelers celebrated in the popular nightlife area of Itaewon.
Mourners bowed heads and left flowers at one of the government’s special memorial sites that opened Monday in Seoul and other cities, and many businesses canceled Halloween-themed events.
South Korea’s government had identified all but one of the victims Monday, but the serious conditions of at least 30 of the 149 injured could raise the death toll, officials said.
Police said they have launched a 475-member task force to investigate the tragedy. Twenty-six foreign nationals were among the dead, including two Americans, the State Department confirmed to USA TODAY.
Police said they dispatched 137 officers to maintain order during the festivities on Saturday, and some are questioning whether that was enough.
Here’s what we know:
What led to the crowd surge?
The cause of the crowd surge — a scene described by witnesses as nightmarish — was under investigation Monday.
The incident happened in Itaewon, a hilly Seoul neighborhood known for the Halloween-themed parties that have increased in popularity in recent years among younger South Koreans.
The party was South Korea’s largest Halloween celebration since the pandemic, and one of the city’s largest since the country relaxed COVID-19 restrictions in 2022.
Survivors described people in costumes being pushed down and toppling over each other along a narrow downhill alley.
“I still can’t believe what has happened. It was like a hell,” said Kim Mi Sung, who performed CPR on multiple victims at the scene.
How are police investigating the disaster?
As National Forensic Service staff examined the site of the incident Monday for answers, the police task force was also assigned to look into the cause of the surge. Investigators pieced together the night’s events using footage from area security cameras and videos posted to social media.
More than 40 witnesses and survivors have spoken with police, according to senior police officer Nam Gu-Jun.
“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,” South Korea’s Prime Minister, Han Duck-soo, said at a disaster-related meeting.
Why are officials facing criticism?
Officials’ decision to assign fewer than 140 police officers to the informal Halloween event attended by thousands has come under fire amid calls for accountability in the disaster’s wake.
The South Korean government has also insisted that there was no way to predict the crowd would get out of control.
The 137 officers in Itaewon were instructed to monitor crime and drug use rather than crowd safety. “No one was looking after pedestrian safety,” said Kong Ha-song, a disaster prevention professor at South Korea’s Woosuk University.
Kong said potential bottleneck points should have been monitored by additional police and government workers, who he said may have prevented the tragedy by enforcing one-way walking lanes and closing off entry to narrow pathways.
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Emergency workers seeking help from pedestrians to perform CPR were overwhelmed by the dense crowd, which delayed paramedics from reaching the scene, said Choi Sukjae, an emergency medicine specialist and chief spokesperson of the Korean Emergency Medical Association.
Seoul-based Hanyang University urban planning professor Lee Changmoo said the crowd surge deaths should be viewed as a “manmade disaster.”
“Our country usually does a good job in following the manual and maintaining crowd control at events where there’s a specific organizer, but officials are often unsure what to do or even don’t care about events that aren’t created by a specific organizer, although it’s those events that usually require a closer watch,” he said.
By comparison, in another part of South Korea’s capital the night of the crowd surge, nearly 7,000 police officers were assigned to patrol protests that drew at least 10,000 attendees.
Hong Ki-hyeon, a senior national police agency official, said police don’t have an established protocol for informally organized gatherings.
“In events like festivals that have a specific organizer, discussions are made between related municipalities, police, fire departments and medical experts who prepare and cooperate under different roles,” Hong said. “That is what we lacked regarding this accident.”
Who were the US victims in South Korea?
The death toll of Americans killed in the crowd surge remained at two Monday, and three U.S. citizens were injured, the State Department said.
The two Americans killed were 20-year-old college students: Anne Gieske, a nursing junior from the University of Kentucky, and Steven Blesi, an international business major from Kennesaw State University. Both universities confirmed the students’ deaths on Twitter.
Gieske’s parents expressed heartbreak and devastation over their daughter’s death through the office of U.S. Ohio Rep. Brad Wenstrup, who was Gieske’s uncle.
“She was a bright light loved by all,” her family said in a statement.
Gieske was studying abroad with two other Kentucky students who have been confirmed safe, according to university President Eli Capilouto.
Contributing: Thao Nguyen, USA TODAY; Cameron Knight, The Cincinnati Enquirer; The Associated Press