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Over 150 people died after a crowd surge on Halloween in Seoul

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

South Korea is in a national state of mourning, this week, after a stampede that may go down as the deadliest crowd incident in the country's history. At least 153 people were either crushed to death or succumbed to injuries. Scores more are still being treated. NPR's Anthony Kuhn was at the scene and joins us from Seoul. Anthony, thanks for being with us.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: My pleasure.

RASCOE: So what do we know about why the crowding there in Seoul turned deadly Saturday night?

KUHN: We still don't know the precise cause of what made people push and surge. The police are still investigating that. But eyewitnesses said the scene was just too packed. There was not enough crowd control or emergency responders. This was in Itaewon, which is Seoul's most international and multicultural neighborhood. The bars and restaurants there were packed to capacity with young revelers in Halloween costumes. Partygoers surged into a narrow alley that was only about 11 feet across, and people fell down, began to pile up. Medical personnel arrived and tried to resuscitate people, and then they had to start taking away the bodies.

RASCOE: And tell us what we know about the victims and the survivors.

KUHN: Well, there were more women than men among the dead and injured. There were more than two dozen foreign nationals also, and they came from countries including China, Iran, Norway and Uzbekistan. And the U.S. Embassy has confirmed that there were two Americans among the dead. The Koreans and the foreigners went to a community center to look for missing friends and family members, and that's where we met Nathan Taverniti, who is 24. He comes from Sydney, Australia. He said he became separated from three friends when the crowd surged into the alley. Let's hear what he said.

NATHAN TAVERNITI: And those clubs on the side - and I was yelling with other people that you have to let people go inside the clubs because people are dying. I was yelling that people are going to die here. And nobody was taking us seriously.

KUHN: And Taverniti said that one of his friends died, and the other two were injured and sent to hospitals.

RASCOE: My goodness. You know, as we say, the government has declared this week a national week of mourning. Like, what else are you seeing in the government's reaction to this?

KUHN: Well, they're taking a lot of steps. They're going to pay funeral and medical costs. They're going to make consolation payments to bereaved families. They're going to cancel festivals, concerts and other activities during the mourning period. They're going to set up public altars for people to mourn the dead. President Yoon Suk-yeol gave a televised speech. He said this incident should never have happened. He promised a thorough investigation and fundamental reforms to ensure the tragedy is never repeated.

RASCOE: You know, there is a call for investigation. But when will - do you think that the grief will turn to calls for accountability?

KUHN: Well, the focus still - is still mainly on the victims, but a lot of people are thinking about the issue of, how could such mayhem and death occur in a city that is generally seen as one of Asia's most affluent, high-tech and efficiently managed? The interior minister admitted that Seoul police were spread thin on Halloween, but he said they couldn't have prevented this even if they had been there, in force, on the scene.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn, joining us from Seoul. Anthony, thank you so much.

KUHN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.