The blaze of neon signs and the jumble of big name brands, so familiar from nightlife districts in cities across Asia, made the horror of what unfolded in Seoul on Saturday night all the more jarring.
Ravo, Fireball Whisky and Oasis Bar & Cafe proclaimed advertising hoardings at one intersection of the city’s Itaewon district. “Happy Halloween,” read another big sign in yellow, red, pink and blue letters. It was all a magnet for young people looking for a good time.
But videos shot in the immediate aftermath of the crowd surge, in which more than 140 people were killed and more than 100 injured, told a different story. One showed emergency workers in neon vests pumping furiously on the chests of people spread on the ground in a desperate attempt to revive them.
“There were so many people that we couldn’t move,” said Song Su-yeon, 46, who was visiting from the city of Incheon and arrived at the Itaewon subway station an hour after the event. “It looked like I would have died if I had fallen.”
“People kept pushing down and more people were crushed down,” another witness wrote. “People crushed under the crowd were crying and I thought I would be crushed to death, too, breathing through a hole and crying for help.”
A trio of friends, in clubbing outfits, were ready to party when they arrived in Itaewon. Then they saw a row of bodies laid on the street while covered in blue plastic blankets. “It was frightening,” said Lee Seong-eun, 30, of Seoul. “I couldn’t believe what I saw.”
Her friend, Jeong Sol, 30, said that the crowds were so unruly that it took a long time for officials to clear it to make way for rescuers and evacuations. “It was so bad we couldn’t even see the road,” Ms. Jeong said. “We were shoved around a lot. People were pushed and dragged, irrespective of who they were.”
Hours later, ambulances were still ferrying bodies, covered in yellow sheets, away and late-night partygoers were working their way home. Even then, authorities said they had no clear idea of exactly what had happened and how an annual festival had evolved so quickly into one of the country’s biggest disasters in years.
One of the most prevalent reactions on social media in the immediate aftermath of the incident was expressions of concern for people who had been in the vicinity, or who may have been there, and were now not answering their phones.
“I really hope my friend in Seoul is sleeping and safe,” read one message on Twitter.
People who have been involved in such situations have said in the aftermath that the biggest shock is the sudden lurch from normality into panic that can engulf a crowd and the sense that the normal world has abruptly been upended.
One bystander said he saw bodies, limp, on the street. “I wish I hadn’t,” he said. “But I did. It was heartbreaking.”