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South Koreans mourn 154 people who died in a Halloween stampede in Seoul

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

South Korea is mourning the victims of the nation's worst crowd disaster on record. Revelers surged down a narrow alley during Halloween celebrations, killing more than 150 people. The exact cause has not yet been determined, but as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, many are asking whether police crowd controls could have averted the disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Buddhist monks chant and strike bells and wooden blocks as mourners lay flowers, candles and liquor at an improvised altar. It's by a subway station in Seoul's hilly, multicultural Itaewon neighborhood. Around 100,000 young partygoers, many in Halloween costumes, packed into the area on Saturday night. Near the altar is the narrow alleyway into which the crowd surged. It runs downhill to Itaewon's main street. Hours after the surge, a bar worker stood at the uphill end of the alleyway. He didn't give his name, but he told reporters what he saw from inside one of the clubs that lined the alley.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) We could hear some people in the crowd saying, don't push. But someone in the back said, hey. Push. Push. And people started screaming, and the crowd poured in toward our club.

KUHN: He said minors aren't allowed into his club, but he let them in to save them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) But even after that, people collapsed at the entrance, and some passed out. We tried to rescue them, but our club was at the end of the surge, and there were already three or four layers of people piled on, so we couldn't.

KUHN: Police have combed the alley for clues about just what triggered the crowd surge as the country observes a week of national mourning. The National Police Agency said that they had 137 officers on the scene, but they were directing traffic and preventing street crime, not controlling the crowds. But the police should have been better prepared, says Moon Hyeon-cheol, who's a professor in the Department of Police Science at Soongsil University in Seoul.

MOON HYEON-CHEOL: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "The large crowd didn't just gather suddenly," he says. "There were plenty of signs from the day and the week before that this was going to happen." The stampede is the latest national tragedy to be seared into South Korea's collective memory. The last big one was the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, which killed more than 300 people, most of them high school students. Many blamed the accident on safety violations and lax government regulation. Some South Koreans insist that their country has changed a lot since then. Others, like Jeong Boo-ja, are not so sure. She lost her son on the ferry eight years ago.

JEONG BOO-JA: (Through interpreter) I've heard that when parents went looking for their children, some people wandered for four hours, going from one place to another. How agonizing that must have been. So I thought, nothing has changed.

KUHN: She says she survived the past eight years with the help of fellow citizens, and she came to Itaewon to pay it forward. Her advice to the parents of the stampede victims - find a way to say goodbye to your children. Don't be consumed by grief.

JEONG: (Through interpreter) I'm worried for the parents who will live the rest of their lives thinking about their children in the prison inside their minds.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.