What we know about Seoul's deadly Halloween disaster: On most weekends, the narrow alleys of Itaewon, South Korea's neon-lit nightlife district in Seoul, are packed with partygoers and tourists. It is now the location of one of the country's worst disasters.
Tens of thousands of people flocked to the area in central Seoul on Saturday night to celebrate Halloween, but panic broke out as the crowds grew, with some witnesses reporting that it became difficult to breathe and impossible to move.
The death toll had risen to 154 as of Sunday, with dozens more injured. Authorities have now launched an urgent investigation to determine how what was supposed to be a night of celebration turned out so disastrously, as families across the country mourn and search for missing loved ones.
Why were the crowds so big?
Itaewon has always been a favorite Halloween destination, especially since the festival has grown in popularity in Asia in recent years. Some even travel in from distant parts of the region to attend the celebrations.
However, pandemic limitations on crowd numbers and mask bans have dampened celebrations during the last two years.
Saturday night was the first Halloween since the government eliminated these limitations, making it extra special for many enthusiastic participants in Seoul, as well as outside visitors such as foreign residents and tourists.
Hotels and ticketed activities in the area were fully booked months in advance, and big numbers were expected.
The cause of the crush is still under investigation, though officials said there were no gas leaks or fires on site. As a stunned and grieving nation grapples with the tragedy, questions are also emerging about how such a disaster could have unfolded in a popular area where people are known to gather.
It’s hard to pinpoint what might have triggered the crush – but authorities “would have anticipated high numbers … before Saturday night,” said Juliette Kayyem, a disaster management expert and national security analyst for CNN.
What should you do if you are trapped in a crowd and you start to feel the walls are closing in? Here are a few survival tips from our research in our “Fouloscopie” (crowd studies) labs.
1. Keep your eyes open
Your number-one goal is to get out of the sea of people as quickly and calmly as possible. Look around you: is it better to turn back or go forward? To find out, try to guess where the epicentre of the crush is located – where it is most crowded – and then move toward where the crowd thins out. Don’t forget to look up. You might find a quick escape by climbing a fence or getting up onto a ledge.
2. Leave while you can
If the crowd thickens around you, the available space is reduced and your freedom of movement gradually diminishes. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to escape. Given this, don’t hesitate to leave the highly congested area as soon as you start to feel uncomfortable, and while you still have enough room to move. By getting out of the crowd, you will also reduce the danger for others, since the area will be less crowded for those who stay.
3. Remain upright
If it’s too late to flee, the most important thing to do is retain your balance and stay upright. In a crowd crush, people are pressed so tightly together that if someone falls, they create a domino effect, immediately taking down those around them. Should you fall, the weight of other bodies will pin you to the ground before you have a chance to right yourself. So stay on your feet.
4. Save your breath
Oxygen is your most precious resource. The vast majority of deaths in stampedes are caused by asphyxiation. Avoid screaming unless you have to, and control your breathing.
5. Arms at chest level
Should the pressure become intense, fold your arms up in front of you like a boxer. In that position you can protect your ribcage and keep a few centimetres of space around your ribs and lungs so you can breathe.
6. Go with the flow
When pushed, our natural reflex can be to resist the pressure and push back. In a crowd crush, however, resisting will be a waste of precious energy. Instead, let yourself be carried by the flow while always retaining your balance.
7. Move away from barriers
The only time when the previous tip does not apply is if you’re next to a wall, fence or other solid object you can’t climb up. The first victims of a crush are often pinned against barriers, as was the case in Turin in 2017 and in Heysel and Hillsborough disasters in the 1980s.
If possible, move away from any walls, pillars and fences.
9. In case a panic
A panic is a specific situation in which a crowd rushes in the same direction to escape a real or suspected danger.
Examples include the Madhya Pradesh stampede in India (2013),
the Place de la République in Paris (2015),
the Falls Festival in Victoria, Australia (2016),
the Piazza San Carlo in Turin (2017)
and the Global Citizen Festival in New York City (2018).
In these kinds of situations, the movement of the crowd can be more dangerous than any threat, real or imagined. Take a moment to evaluate the situation and calmly move to safety, while staying as far as possible from the crowd.
10. Help each other
A dangerous situation for you is just as dangerous for those around you. Research by psychologist John Drury from the University of Sussex demonstrates that altruism and mutual assistance are key to avoiding tragedy.
A united crowd is more likely to survive than a crowd of individualists. So remain human and be kind to others, offer help when you can, avoid tripping up those around you and look out for the weakest members of the group. This will benefit everyone, yourself included.