World South Korea mourns Halloween tragedy as questions swirl

South Korea mourns Halloween tragedy as questions swirl

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Mourners on Monday left white chrysanthemums and other items at a memorial for victims of the Halloween crowd crush that left at least 154 dead in Seoul. Photo by Thomas Maresca/BP

SEOUL, Oct. 31 (BP) — South Korea on Monday mourned the tragic crowd crush during Halloween celebrations in Seoul that left at least 154 people dead and 149 injured.

Near the site of the disaster in the Itaewon nightlife district of Seoul, a memorial filled with white chrysanthemum flowers, snacks and bottles of beer and soju — typical of mourning altars in South Korea — drew a steady stream of visitors. Several shops and restaurants on the streets surrounding the site of the tragedy remained closed, with signs expressing sorrow and condolences.

Most of the victims of Saturday’s incident, the deadliest crowd crush in the country’s history, were in their 20s and 30s, officials said. Among them were 26 foreigners, including two Americans: Steven Blesi and Anne Gieske, both 20-year-old college juniors who were in Seoul on study abroad programs.

Some who came to mourn at the site expressed disbelief that something like this could happen in a city that seemed so orderly and secure.

“I always felt so safe here,” Maya Picabea, a 20-year-old French national who left the Itaewon area early on Saturday but later discovered that a European friend had died during the crowd surge.

“I felt so free walking around,” Picabea, here on a one-year working holiday, said. “Now I can’t cross the street without crying.”

Officials are still trying to piece together the details of Saturday’s tragedy. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol declared a weeklong period of national mourning, while a task force of 475 investigators has been formed to pore over closed-circuit footage and interview witnesses.

Questions are growing louder about how a disaster like this could have happened, with witnesses and social media accounts reporting that the police presence was minimal for such a massive crowd.

Lee Sang-min, South Korea’s minister of the interior and safety, said in a briefing that officials had not expected crowds to be larger than usual for Halloween and added that police had been deployed to other areas of the city to respond to political protests.

Others at the memorial site also questioned what the future would hold for the thriving Itaewon area.

Seoul native Charlie Yoo, 31, was not in Itaewon on Saturday but said that he often came to the neighborhood to enjoy its international atmosphere of restaurants and bars.

“It’s hard to believe this street where I had fun for so long has been turned into this scene of tragedy,” he said. “I’m not sure it will ever return to what it used to be. I’m not sure that I can come back here again.”

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