Canadian recalls ‘pandemonium’ in South Korean district where 150 died in stampede

Canadian recalls 'pandemonium' in South Korean district where 150 died in stampede
People pay tribute to victims of a deadly crowd crush during Saturday night's Halloween festivities, at a makeshift flower-laying area set up near the scene of the incident in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Ahn Young-joon

A Canadian in Seoul says he’s had trouble sleeping since witnessing tens of thousands of people crowding into side streets and alleys in the city’s nightclub district on Saturday, a scenario that led to the crushing death of more than 150 people.

Matthew Clement said he avoided the narrowest streets in Itaewon on Halloween after experiencing dense throngs of people in previous years that made him fear for his life.

“In the past I’ve felt overwhelmed. It’s terrifying,” he said in an interview from Seoul. “It was very difficult to move or even control your movements.”

He is among many trying to make sense of the fatal stampede that South Korean officials have said killed 156 in the capital city.

South Korea’s National Police Agency has acknowledged that Seoul police failed to act for hours despite receiving at least 11 emergency calls from pedestrians warning about a swelling crowd of Halloween revellers getting out of control ahead of the crush.

Clement moved to South Korea 20 years ago to teach English and spent the past 18 years living in Itaewon, although he moved out of the neighbourhood just a few weeks ago. He returned on Halloween to perform two DJ sets.

Itaewon seems to draw a bigger Halloween crowd each year, he said, likening the feeling to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with the streets as much of a party venue as the bars.

“It’s become almost a destination, especially for younger adults, university students and so forth, as a place for them to dress up like on Halloween and have a wonderful time. Over the last five, 10 years it has exploded in size,” he said.

Clement arrived around 7:30 p.m. to DJ at a small lounge and was surprised to see that even smaller streets that were empty in previous years were filled with people. When his set was over at 9 p.m., he said it was already “pandemonium.”

He did another set at a different venue and when he finished, standing on a rooftop, he watched an ambulance go by on the street below.

“We saw it, and then another, and another. And I think we probably counted at least 20 ambulances racing by,” he said.

He tried to make a phone call but it didn’t work, he said, assuming everyone making calls at the same time had jammed the phone and internet networks.

Rumours flew about what was going on and Clement said his gut feeling turned out to be true.

“What I suspected happened did happen, but I could never have believed it would have been this bad,” he said.

Clement said he also saw police racing past and spoke with people who told him they’d seen dozens of bodies on the ground.

Ultimately, he said he walked out of the district and arranged a place for his wife to come pick him up. The subway system had shut down, so plenty of other people did the same.

The tone was strange, he said, with some people realizing the severity of what happened and others oblivious.

“Half the people were devastated, you know, you can see people who had physically been right there, they had to walk through that area, and you can see people who were traumatized,” he said.

“On the other hand, I think there were some people who had no idea what really happened.”

Clement, who teaches English and business at a university, said he has learned of a few people in his circles who died in the crush.

“I’ve been quite emotional,” he said. “This is my home, this is my community. These people represent my friends, my students, my neighbours,” he said, adding the predominant feeling is sadness.

“There’s a little anger there too, because this shouldn’t have happened. The authorities knew people were coming. We needed their protection, they needed protection.”

Amy Smart/The Canadian Press

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