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Disaster

S. Korea in shock, grief as 151 die in Halloween crowd surge

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Concerned relatives raced to hospitals in search of their loved ones Sunday as South Korea mourned the deaths of at least 151 people, mostly in their teens and 20s, who got trapped and crushed after a huge Halloween party crowd surged into a narrow alley in a nightlife district in Seoul.

Tens of thousands of people were believed to have gathered in Itaewon for festivities on Saturday night. Witnesses say the streets were so densely clogged with people and slow-moving vehicles that it was practically impossible for emergency workers and ambulances to reach the alley near Hamilton Hotel, as the situation quickly developed into one of the country’s worst disasters in years.

There were concerns the death toll could grow as 24 people among the 104 being treated for injuries are in critical condition, according to Seoul City’s disaster headquarters.

The city government said more than 2,600 people have called or visited a city office in nearby Hannam-dong as of Saturday afternoon, reporting their relatives as out of contact and asking officials to confirm whether they were among those injured or dead after the crush.

The dead included 19 foreigners, said Choi Seong-beom, chief of Seoul’s Yongsan fire department. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry did not confirm the nationalities of those victims, but it said that they alerted their countries’ embassies in Seoul. The Chinese state news agency Xinhua said at least three Chinese nationals were killed.

The bodies of the dead were being kept at 42 hospitals in the capital, Seoul, and nearby Gyeonggi Province, according to Seoul City, which said it will instruct crematories to burn more bodies per day as part of plans to support funeral proceedings.

Around 100 businesses in the Hamilton Hotel area have agreed to shut down their shops through Monday to reduce the number of partygoers who would come to the streets through Halloween Day.

An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon for the country’s biggest outdoor Halloween festivities since the pandemic began and strict rules on gatherings were enforced. The South Korean government eased COVID-19 restrictions in recent months and this was the first big chance to get out and party for many young people.

While Halloween isn’t a traditional holiday in South Korea, where children rarely go trick-or-treating, it’s still a major attraction for young adults, and costume parties at bars and clubs have become hugely popular in recent years.

Itaewon, near where the former headquarters of U.S. military forces in South Korea operated before moving out of the capital in 2018, is an expat-friendly district known for its trendy bars, clubs and restaurants and it’s the city’s marquee Halloween destination.

Officials initially said 150 people were injured as of Sunday morning before later lowering their tally. National Fire Agency officials didn’t immediately explain why the tally was reduced but said emergency workers would have had a more accurate idea of the casualties as rescue operations proceeded and that some of the injured would have been converted to deaths. It was also possible that some of those who were lightly injured had returned home overnight and were no longer counted.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol declared a national mourning period on Sunday and ordered flags at government buildings and public offices to fly at half-staff. During a televised speech, Yoon said supporting the families of the victims, including their funeral preparations, and the treatment of the injured would be a top priority for his government.

He also called for officials to thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident and review the safety of other large cultural and entertainment events, including regional festivals, to ensure they proceed safely.

“This is really devastating. The tragedy and disaster that need not have happened took place in the heart of Seoul amid Halloween (celebrations),” Yoon said during the speech. “I feel heavy hearted and cannot contain my sadness as a president responsible for the people’s lives and safety.”

After the speech, Yoon visited the Itaewon alley where the disaster occurred. Local TV footage showed Yoon inspecting the alley filled with trash and being briefed by emergency officials.

It was not immediately clear what led the crowd to surge into the narrow downhill alley near the Hamilton Hotel, a major party spot in Seoul. One survivor said many people fell and toppled one another “like dominos” after they were pushed by others. The survivor, surnamed Kim, said they were trapped for about an hour and a half before being rescued, as some people shouted “Help me!” and others were short of breath, according to the Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper.

Another survivor, Lee Chang-kyu, said he saw about five or six men push others before one or two began falling, according to the newspaper.

In an interview with news channel YTN, Hwang Min-hyeok, a visitor to Itaewon, said it was shocking to see rows of bodies near the hotel. He said emergency workers were initially overwhelmed, leaving pedestrians struggling to administer CPR to the injured lying on the streets. People wailed beside the bodies of their friends, he said.

Another survivor in his 20s said he avoided being trampled by managing to get into a bar whose door was open in the alley, Yonhap news agency reported. A woman in her 20s surnamed Park told Yonhap that she and others were standing along the side of the alley while others caught in the middle of the alley had no escape.

Choi, the fire department chief, said that bodies were being sent to hospitals or a gym, where bereaved family members could identify them. He said most of the dead and injured are in their 20s.

“Horrific news from Seoul tonight,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted. “All our thoughts are with those currently responding and all South Koreans at this very distressing time.”

Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, tweeted that reports of the disaster were “heartbreaking” and said Washington “stands ready to provide the Republic of Korea with any support it needs.”

The last South Korean disaster this deadly also hit young people the hardest. In April 2014, 304 people, mostly high school students, died in a ferry sinking. The sinking exposed lax safety rules and regulatory failures. It was partially blamed on excessive and poorly fastened cargo and a crew poorly trained for emergency situations. Saturday’s deaths will likely draw public scrutiny of what government officials have done to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.

It was also Asia’s second major crushing disaster in a month. On Oct. 1, police in Indonesia fired tear gas at a soccer match, causing a crush that killed 132 people as spectators attempted to flee.

More than 1,700 response personnel from across the country were deployed to the streets to help the wounded, including about 520 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and 70 government workers. The National Fire Agency separately said in a statement that officials were still trying to determine the exact number of emergency patients.

This was the deadliest crushing disaster in South Korean history. In 2005, 11 people were killed and around 60 others were injured at a pop concert in the southern city of Sangju.

In 1960, 31 people died after being crushed on the stairs of a train station as large crowds rushed to board a train during the Lunar New Year holidays.

Kim Tong-hyung And Hyung-jin Kim, The Associated Press

 

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Disaster

Canada announces $10 million in aid to Turkey and Syria after deadly earthquake

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By Sharif Hassan

Ottawa will contribute $10 million to earthquake relief efforts in Turkey and Syria as part of an initial aid package, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters after a cabinet meeting, Sajjan said the federal government is looking at providing further aid and considering deploying the country’s disaster assistance response team to help with rescue operations and provide health services.

“We are conducting the needs assessment to look at what would be the next steps,” Sajjan said, adding that “nothing is off the table.”

The death toll of Monday’s earthquake has surpassed 6,200 and is expected to rise as search and rescue operations continue.

The powerful 7.8 magnitude quake, which was followed by strong aftershocks, has levelled thousands of buildings to the ground across southeastern Turkey and parts of neighbouring Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 13 million of the country’s 85 million people were affected, and he declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces.

Sajjan said Canada’s initial aid package in response to international disasters is normally lower, but the amount is warranted given the magnitude of the earthquakes.

“Usually we start a little bit lower but given the magnitude, based on the feedback we were getting, we are actually going higher, once we have more (details) we will be able to move very quickly.”

Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship of Canada, who also spoke with reporters after Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, called the earthquakes an “absolute disaster,” which has “devastated” members of the Syrian community he has spoken with.

“We are watching very closely, and I should say, not only from an immigration of point of view, but also global affairs and international development, to figure out what the best response may be,” he said.

Turkish Canadians have also stepped in to raise funds and collect donations to send to their country of origin.

Baris Kafadar, the vice-president of the Federation of Canadian Turkish Associations, said the organization has set up a bank account to raise funds, and has set up locations where people can drop off non-monetary donations to be sent abroad.

“What is happening right now is we set up donation centres in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver where people come in, they donate clothing, non-perishable food, toys, safety equipment, sanitary stuff, anything we can basically send back to Turkey,” he said.

“Hopefully we can soon get enough money, find the right place to send the money to,” he said.

– With files from The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2023.

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Disaster

Survivors scream as desperate rescuers work in Turkey, Syria

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By Mehmet Guzel And Zeynep Bilginsoy in Adana

ADANA, Turkey (AP) — Rescuers called out, “Slowly, slowly,” as they lifted a man inch by inch from between slabs of collapsed concrete Monday in the Turkish province that was the epicenter of a devastating earthquake.

His neck in a brace, the barefoot man was carried on a stretcher as he emerged. Rescuers in Pazarcik in the province of Kahramanmaras held him aloft and ran off with him.

It was among numerous rescue efforts that unfolded as darkness, rain and cold enveloped the region of Turkey and Syria that was rocked by a powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Hours later, a 7.5 magnitude temblor struck more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. At least 3,400 people were killed, and civilians joined rescuers in desperate efforts across Turkey and Syria.

“Can anyone hear me?” rescuers shouted. In some places around southeast Turkey, survivors could be heard screaming from beneath collapsed buildings.

People crouched to look below a massive sheet of concrete propped at an angle by steel bars. They crawled in and out, trying to reach survivors. Excavating equipment dug through the rubble below.

Elsewhere in Kahramanmaras province, rescuers pulled two children alive from the rubble. One lay on a stretcher on the snowy ground. Rescuers quieted the throngs of people trying to help so they could hear survivors and find them.

Some emerged safely then waited to hear any word on relatives.

“My two grandchildren, my daughter-in-law, are all inside. They haven’t come out,” said Hasan Birbalta while waiting near a collapsed building in Pazarcik, adding the granddaughter is 2 and the grandson is 6.

Thousands of search-and-rescue personnel, firefighters and medics were working across 10 provinces, along with some 3,500 soldiers. Residents lifted rubble and unearthed people heard screaming from beneath buildings. Aftershocks made rescue efforts more dangerous.

In Adana, about 20 people, some in emergency rescue jackets, used power saws atop the concrete mountain of a collapsed building to carve out space that would let any survivors climb out or be rescued. Later, excavators joined the efforts as bright spotlights illuminated the wreckage.

Turkish military ambulance planes were transporting the injured to Istanbul and Ankara hospitals, the defense ministry said. Rescuers from across Turkey tried to make it to the provinces amid heavy snow and rain.

At a news conference late Monday, four ministers said that because Hatay’s airport had been severely damaged, they had to fly into Adana nearly three hours away.

In Syria, a man held a dead girl in his arms beside a two-story collapsed concrete building as he walked away from the debris. He and a woman set the girl on the floor under covering to protect her from the rain, wrapping her in a large blanket and looking back to the building, overwhelmed.

An official with Turkey’s disaster management authority said 7,840 people had been rescued across 10 provinces. The official, Orhan Tatar, said 5,606 buildings had collapsed.

Tatar said the total area affected was large and places were hard to reach, but that as of late Monday, teams had been directed to all collapsed buildings.

___

Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Carley Petesch in Chicago contributed.

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