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[From the scene] Parents wait in agony after crush kills Halloween revelers

Night ends with bodies alongside street, gyms turned into temporary morgues

Ambulances line up outside the Soonchunhyang University Hospital near Itaewon, Seoul, on Sunday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Ambulances line up outside the Soonchunhyang University Hospital near Itaewon, Seoul, on Sunday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

In the aftermath of Halloween festivities that turned into a deadly crush late Saturday, parents passed a sleepless night outside hospitals, wondering where their children were.

Late Saturday in Seoul’s nightlife district of Itaewon, at least 153 people -- most of them in their 20s -- died as a large crowd surged into a narrow alley.

Outside Soonchunhyang University Hospital, less than a kilometer away, parents waited for news of their children as the chilly October night wore on.

For several hours, empty ambulances arrived at the hospital from all over the country to pick up the casualties. From the hospital’s morgue, a gurney carrying a body covered in a white sheet was wheeled into an ambulance. And then another was wheeled into an ambulance, and another after that.

The hospital, which received about half of the night’s fatalities, ran out of space and had to send some away, police officers at the scene explained.

Police and forensic officers stand outside the hospital morgue as bodies of the deceased from the Itaewon crush are sent away to different hospitals due to a lack of space. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Police and forensic officers stand outside the hospital morgue as bodies of the deceased from the Itaewon crush are sent away to different hospitals due to a lack of space. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Workers wheel a body on a gurney into an ambulance. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Workers wheel a body on a gurney into an ambulance. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

Parents, their faces wet from flowing tears, watched ambulances carry the bodies away in succession.

“Maybe he died,” said one mother, breaking into sobs, as the death count rose to 140 at around 4 a.m.

She said she had last spoken to her son at around 7:40 p.m. He told her he might be coming home late. When she saw in the news later that night that there had been a fatal crush where her son said he would be, her heart began to race. He was not picking up his phone. Something was wrong. She went to the police who, after much pleading, found that his last phone activity had been in Itaewon.

“When I got to Itaewon they said there were a lot of lost phones, and that I should try the nearby hospital and see if he made it there,” she said.

She said she saw the bodies lined up alongside the street, but did not think it possible her son could be among them until now.

“One hundred and forty? That’s so many. Maybe he died. I don’t know. I can’t reach him,” she said.

Another sobbing mother, who was at the Wonhyo gym in the neighborhood, where bodies were being placed, said she has gone back and forth.

“Where do I have to go? Please,” she begged officers for answers. “Please tell me what I have to do.”

Her son’s friend, who was with him there before losing him in the crowd, stood alongside her looking stunned as she asked, “Was he hurt? Are you sure you saw him like that? You are sure it was him?”

A woman from Russia said she had been waiting outside the hospital since around 1 a.m.

“It’s my cousin. She’s 25. I got a call from her friend that she might be at this hospital. But I haven’t heard anything yet,” she said.

An old couple, who came to look for their granddaughter, were blocked by police as they tried to get nearer to the ambulances. The couple said their other family members were scattered across Seoul, each checking at different hospitals.

Police told them they could not confirm anything at this point, and that the bodies were being moved to hospitals elsewhere or to gyms because there was not enough space.

Law enforcement agencies formed a special team to speed up efforts to identify the bodies of the deceased on Sunday as families were kept waiting. Authorities said more than 4,000 missing person reports had poured in by Sunday afternoon.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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