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‘Reminders everywhere’: Halloween crush haunts survivors one year after Itaewon crowd disaster

Hye Minyi can still vividly recall what happened in Itaewon, South Korea, on the night of October 29, 2022.

That was when the trendy nightlife district in the heart of Seoul became the site of one of the country’s deadliest disasters, when a massive crowd surge during Halloween celebrations killed more than 150 people and left the nation reeling.

Hye, 22, was with her older cousin Amy at a street bar in Itaewon at the time. They were among hundreds who had gathered at the many bars and restaurants that line the district’s streets and alleyways.

Hye can well remember how panic began to spread through the increasingly crowded streets; how people began jostling for air and space; and how quickly the situation began to spiral out of control.

From where she lay on the ground, she could see other revelers, many in Halloween costumes and many already dead. “Time might have passed but I can’t forget what happened on Halloween,” she said.

“I still have nightmares (of it) almost every day.”

By the end of the night, 159 people would be dead, many of them young Koreans in their 20s and 30s.

Hye suffered a broken ankle and severe bruisings from being badly trampled on and was in hospital for weeks. She also suffered painful migraines for days.

Halloween is widely celebrated in the US every year on October 31, its origins dating back centuries. In Asia however, it is largely considered a Western holiday – one celebrated by expats, and has only recently increased in popularity among more locals

Halloween festivities have become more common in most major cities like Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. But rather than young children going trick or treating, the occasion is more often a chance for young adults to dress up in costume and go partying.

Whether the disaster in Itaewon last year will put a dent in this growing popularity is yet to be seen. However, various nightlife districts throughout Asia are stepping up precautions aimed at preventing a similar tragedy from occurring.

South Korean officials say they have increased crowd control measures, security protocols and site inspections in at least 14 public areas across Seoul where they anticipate large crowds will gather for Halloween.

In Japan, authorities are encouraging young people to avoid popular areas in the nightlife district of Shibuya, which has become a popular gathering spot on Halloween night.

“We are extremely concerned that there could be a repeat of the Itaewon tragedy,” said Shibuya mayor Ken Hasebe. “Until last year, we have asked people to behave themselves at Halloween but this year we are being bolder (by) saying to people: please don’t come.”

Drinking in the streets will be banned between 6 p.m. and 5 a.m. on Halloween as well as the days leading up to it, Hasebe said, adding that liquor stores in the vicinity have been asked not to sell alcohol. Street security would also be stepped up, with more police and security guards being deployed to control crowds.

“Every year during Halloween, the area around Shibuya Station becomes so crowded that it is nearly impossible to move,” Hasebe said. “The streets of Shibuya are not party venues. The damage caused by overtourism has become serious.”

In the city of Guangzhou in southeastern China, operators of an underground metro service have banned “scary makeup and dressing” on trains to “prevent any potential panic.”

“During Halloween activities, if a passenger is wearing scary makeup, we may ask them to remove it before entering the station,” the operators said in a statement.

Areas in some stations will be cordoned off to allow passengers to remove make up before boarding trains.

Lack of accountability?

The Itaewon crowd crush was South Korea’s worst peacetime disaster since the sinking of a ferry in 2014 killed 304 people – among them 250 students and teachers from the Danwon State High School.

Like the ferry sinking, the Itaewon crush shone a spotlight on the South Korean government for its response to the tragedy. Critics accused it of being too slow to respond and of failing to take accountability for what happened that night.

But authorities have continued to face criticism, and this year, they appear to not be taking any chances.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government announced a slew of new measures “to ensure a safe Halloween” – including a new CCTV system to monitor crowd numbers.

“We anticipate that 14 areas in Seoul, including Itaewon in Yongsan-gu, will experience a high level of crowding during the Halloween season,” the metropolitan government said in a statement on October 13.

“In every area expecting mass gatherings, one way traffic rules will be applied and on-site safety officers wearing reflective vests and carrying light batons will be deployed.

“If the area becomes overly crowded, subway trains may skip that location, and road access can be restricted to secure sufficient space for pedestrians. In addition, emergency medical support systems will be put in place to proactively prevent safety incidents – this includes the operation of on-site situation rooms and the deployment of ambulances for urgent situations.”

For survivors, reminders everywhere

Today, Itaewon shows few overt signs of the horrors that took place – save for a few makeshift memorials such as walls of post-it notes paying tribute to those who died there.

Locals and tourists alike have since returned to its bars and restaurants, driven in part by government incentives aimed at reviving the area.

But to survivors and bereaved families, there are painful memories everywhere.

“This Halloween is going to be a hard time not just for me but for a lot of people,” she said.

She and many other survivors and families remain critical about what they see as a continuing lack of accountability over the disaster.

Kim Ho-kyung, whose daughter died in the crush, read a message for President Yoon Suk Yeol during a press conference on October 18 saying that the bereaved were still waiting for “a sincere apology.”

She invited the president to a memorial service organised by civil groups and the families of the victims scheduled to take place on Sunday.

On his Facebook a week later, the Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min expressed his “deepest condolences to those who were sacrificed in the October 29 disaster a year ago, and pray that they may rest in peace.”

Extending his “deepest sympathy” to the families, he said that “as the minister in charge of disaster and safety, I feel sorry for failing to protect the precious lives of the people and feel an infinite sense of responsibility.”

He added: “The way to ensure that the unfortunate sacrifices of the deceased are not in vain is to make sure that such an incident does not happen again.”

Even so, Lee and many others say they doubt whether the lessons of that awful night have truly been learnt.

Lee is certain of one thing, however – that she is “never going back to the area again.”

“For me, Halloween and the Itaewon tragedy are (inextricably) linked,” she said. “It’s impossible to see reminders everywhere and not think about the death of friends that night.”

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