Itaewon: an inclusive and multicultural center struck by tragedy

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SEOUL, South Korea – Itaewon, the neighborhood where at least 151 people were killed in a Halloween mob, is Seoul’s most cosmopolitan neighborhood, a place where kebab stalls and barbecues are as popular as lively nightclubs and trendy bars.

Wedged between two of the city’s largest parks and the War Memorial of Korea museum, Itaewon has long been popular among foreign residents and tourists thanks in large part to a major US military base that once stood nearby. Nightlife in the area is mostly centered on one main road.

In recent years, the days around Halloween have seen the bustling streets of Itaewon filled with revelers – expats and Koreans – dressed in holiday costumes. These festivities have continued even during the pandemic, which temporarily slowed Itaewon’s nightlife after several cases were traced to nightclubs and other venues in the area.

Officials believe tens of thousands of revelers flocked to Itaewon on Saturday, in one of the largest gatherings since the country lifted most of its COVID-19 restrictions in recent months. Witnesses say the streets were so densely packed with people and slow-moving vehicles that it was virtually impossible for rescue workers and ambulances to arrive in time, leaving them powerless to stop the situation from turning into the country’s worst disaster. For years.

On Saturday evening, rescue workers were seen rushing to carry the injured and dead on stretchers as ambulances lined the streets and chaotic crowds fled the area. Paramedics and pedestrians frantically performed CPR on people in the streets near rows of lifeless bodies kept under blue blankets.

Park Ji-won, who runs a Middle Eastern restaurant opposite the Hamilton Hotel, said he saw paramedics dragging people out on stretchers among the huge crowd as he closed his restaurant around 11 p.m. He had no idea what had just happened.

“I just assumed a fight had broken out – in my 10+ years working here I’ve only seen ambulances when people were attacked or when there were fires” , Park said.

He said he was “extremely shocked” when he returned home and watched the news, which was when the death toll was a dozen. “But then the death toll kept rising until it reached 151, he said.

Park said Itaewon always had big Halloween crowds, even during the rampaging COVID-19 infections last year. He said traders like him usually avoid the narrow lane next to the Hamilton Hotel during the festivities because “once you’re there you can’t move or go out.”

For some people, it was the contrast between the normally bustling and fun neighborhood and the mass death that was most striking.

“People were wearing Halloween costumes, so the scene was so unrealistic,” said an official from an Itaewon tourism organization who rushed to the scene to try to help. She requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the incident.

Although there are no widespread Western-style candy activities in South Korea, Halloween-themed parties and events have become increasingly popular among young South Koreans, and Itaewon is the hottest place in the country for such events, where bars, clubs and restaurants hold costume contests.

Itaewon’s international character was shaped by its proximity to a nearby US military garrison. The area is still home to restaurants, bars, and other businesses catering to Seoul’s American community.

Yongsan Garrison, which served as the headquarters of U.S. Forces Korea and the United Nations Command until 2017, is less than 1 mile from Itaewon. US forces have since moved their South Korean headquarters to Pyeongtaek, a town 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Seoul, leaving only a small contingent in Yongsan while beginning to cede land to the South Korean government. .

Even after losing most of its American military patrons, Itaewon has remained a major attraction for South Koreans and foreign visitors, who are drawn to the neighborhood’s lively, boozy nightlife as well as its international flair. Restaurants serving American barbecue and Middle Eastern kebabs sit alongside Irish pubs and traditional Japanese-style bars.

“The Itaewon community has opened their arms to us for many years and are part of the reason our Alliance is so strong,” US Forces Korea, which commands the approximately 30,000 US service members in the country, said in a statement. online release, written in English and Korean. “During this time of mourning, we will be there for you as you have been there for us.”

The epicenter of the disaster appeared to be in a cramped, sloping lane running along the west side of the Hamilton Hotel, where some witnesses say people fell and toppled over each other like ‘dominoes’. The brick hotel and its adjacent shopping mall are a well-known landmark in the area.

The lane would have left few options for those seeking shelter. One side is occupied by the hotel’s largely solid wall. The other is lined with a handful of small storefronts, including bars, a small retail store, and a branch of the Emart24 convenience store chain.

The walkway itself is on a slope that leads to one of the entrances to the busy Itaewon subway station, making it harder for revelers to maintain their balance as the crowds pour in. The one-block-long driveway connects the main road to another narrow strip filled with trendy bars and restaurants.

A witness told local TV station YTN that he saw both foreigners and Koreans who had been killed and seemed surprised that the area was filling with police vehicles and ambulances trying to help the wounded and the dying.

“It was like an abyss,” said the man, whose name was Hwang Min-hyuk.

Schreck reported from Bangkok.

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