The fire of neon signs and the mingling of famous brands, all too familiar from nightlife spots in cities across Asia, made the horror that occurred in Seoul on Saturday night all the more controversial.
Ravo, Fireball Whiskey and Oasis Bar advertise billboards at one intersection in the city’s Itaewon neighborhood. “Happy Halloween,” read another large sign in yellow, red, pink and blue letters. It all spoke to a magnet for young people looking to have a good time.
But videos filmed in the immediate aftermath, in which more than 140 people were killed and more than 100 injured, tell a different story. One showed emergency workers in neon jackets pumping hard on people’s chests scattered on the ground in a desperate attempt to revive them.
“There were so many people that we couldn’t move,” said Song So-yeon, 46, who was visiting from Incheon and arrived at Itaewon subway station an hour after the event. “It looked like I was going to die if I fell.”
Another witness wrote on Twitter: “People kept pushing and crushing more people.” “People who were crushed under the crowd were crying and I thought I would be crushed to death too, breathing out of a pit and crying for help.”
Three friends, in club clothes, were ready to celebrate when they arrived in Itaewon. Then they saw a row of bodies lying in the street covered in blue plastic sheets. “It was scary,” said Lee Seung Yoon, 30, from Seoul. “I couldn’t believe what I saw.”
Her friend, Jeong Seol, also 30, said the crowds were so unruly that officials took so long to clear the scene to make way for rescuers and evacuees. “The situation was so bad that we couldn’t even see the road,” Ms. Jeong said. “We were pushed a lot. People were pushed and dragged, no matter who they were.”
Hours later, ambulances were still picking up the bodies, covered in yellow sheets, and late-night party-goers were on their way home. Until then, authorities said they had no clear idea of what exactly happened and how an annual festival developed so quickly into one of the country’s biggest disasters in years.
One of the most prevalent reactions on social media in the immediate aftermath of the incident was to express concern to people who were nearby, or may have been, and are not now answering their phones.
“I really hope my friend in Seoul is sleeping and safe,” one of the messages read on Twitter.
People involved in such situations in the aftermath said that the biggest shock was the sudden switch from normalcy to panic that could engulf a crowd and the feeling that the natural world had suddenly turned upside down.
A passerby said he saw dead bodies in the street limp. “I wish I hadn’t,” he said. “But I did. It was heartbreaking.”