PETALING JAYA: An hour before the deadly stampede in the entertainment area of Seoul’s Itaewon district that has already claimed 154 lives, a Malaysian who was at the scene managed to escape the sloped alley.
What was supposed to have been a fun Halloween night with friends turned into a nightmare for freelance travel agent Aziani Ashary, who lives in South Korea.
“I went to Itaewon with a friend from the United Kingdom to witness the Halloween celebration on Saturday night.
“We were there (in the alley). Fortunately, we managed to leave before the overcrowding got worse. No one expected this to happen,” she told The Star.
Due to the thousands of people jam-packed in a narrow alley in the area, Aziani said she could barely breathe as she tried to break away from the mob.
The 32-year-old recalled that as they anxiously headed towards the subway station, people kept on pushing from all directions, making movement even harder.
“Some of them pushed back against the crowd angrily. There was absolutely no crowd control in Itaewon that night,” said Aziani, who had arrived at the scene at around 7.30pm.
Yesterday, she returned to the incident site to find the main road still blocked and guarded by police.
She said a memorial and mourning space near the scene was visited by family members and reporters.
“I can feel the sadness. It’s such an unexpected tragedy,” she added.
According to The Korea Herald, around 100,000 people had thronged Itaewon throughout Saturday.Yonhap News Agency said that ground zero – a narrow back alley on a downhill 4m-by-40m path that links a busy restaurant district with the main street – was an area where about six adults can barely pass at the same time normally.
Another Malaysian, who wanted to be known only as Chong, was also in Itaewon to experience the celebration but quickly changed his mind once he saw uncontrolled crowds in the area.
“The first thing on my mind was ‘Oh my God, we need to get out of here now!’” said the 30-year-old student at a university in the capital city.
“My friends and I were trying to reach a bar in Itaewon but the way was blocked by a huge crowd. We saw police and the army surrounding the place and also some people lying on the ground.
“The people in front of us shouted at us to turn back as the street was closed. We managed to slip through the crowd to get to the main road.
“However, there were still a number of people heading to the blocked path despite the overcrowding,” he said, adding that they were there for an hour from 10pm.
A Malaysian visitor, who was just 3km away, said almost all tourist attractions in the city were awash with people that day.
Abdul Wafi Shaik Abdul Rahman, 27, said that when news of the crowd surge in Itaewon broke, he became anxious that the same would happen in the area he was in – Myeong-dong.
Speaking to locals there, he was told that the crowd build-up in the city came about after two years of restricted movement owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The people in South Korea are mourning and they are very upset that this happened. Everyone here is talking about it,” Abdul Wafi said.The death toll had risen to 154 as of yesterday, with most of the victims being in their teens or 20s.
South Korean officials said yesterday that among the dead were 26 foreigners – five from Iran, four each from China and Russia, two each from the United States and Japan, and one each from France, Australia, Norway, Austria, Vietnam, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Sri Lanka.
As of press time, there was no Malaysian fatality reported, although there were posts on social media claiming otherwise.
The Foreign Ministry said verification efforts were underway.
“At the moment, Wisma Putra is working with South Korean enforcement agencies to verify those claims.
“We will provide the latest update from time to time,” the ministry said in a statement yesterday.
It said those who needed consular assistance or the latest updates could contact the Malaysian Embassy in Seoul at +8210 8974 8699.
The stampede is the deadliest incident in South Korea since the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 that took the lives of over 300 students.