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Updates from the Seoul Halloween stampede that left more than 150 dead

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now this is the sound of mourning on the streets of Seoul, South Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Buddhist monks chanted as people laid flowers for the 154 people who were killed in a Halloween stampede. It's the nation's most deadly crowd accident.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is covering this story from Seoul. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was the scene like at the place where people were marking these deaths?

KUHN: We were just listening to sounds from an informal altar, which was outside the Itaewon subway stop near the site of the accident. Itaewon is a kind of funky, multicultural neighborhood of bars and restaurants, embassies and international schools in Seoul. People stopped by this place to put flowers, candles, bottles of liquor and other offerings on the ground. And in addition to this unofficial altar, there were also two official ones in Itaewon and another by city hall. President Yoon Suk-yeol and his wife paid tribute to the victims there today. And this is the second day of a weeklong period of mourning with flags at half-staff across the nation and many events canceled.

INSKEEP: And I'm sure that many people with a little extra time on their hands are asking the question, how did this happen?

KUHN: Yes. Well, just steps away from this unofficial altar was the site of the crowd surge. The center of it was an alleyway which is only 11 1/2 foot across. It runs downhill to Itaewon's main street. Eyewitnesses say this place was just packed with around 100,000 people in Itaewon. And at the uphill end of this alley, people started pushing, and then people started falling down in front of them. And they were buried by others falling on top of them. Medics and bystanders tried to resuscitate people who were lying on the sidewalk. The largest group of these people were in their 20s, there to party and celebrate Halloween. All of the dead, including 26 foreigners - of whom two were Americans - have now been identified. Police and forensic investigators combed the alleyway for clues today. But the precise cause of the crowd surge is still not clear.

INSKEEP: I'm sure that some people are asking why the police would not have controlled the crowd a little differently.

KUHN: That's right. The interior minister of South Korea said yesterday that police were busy dealing with political protests. But even if they had deployed large numbers of police, it wouldn't have prevented the tragedy. Today, though, the National Police Agency admitted they failed to predict that the crowd could become deadly. They admitted that the police weren't doing any crowd control in that alley. There were 137 police there in Itaewon, but they were directing traffic and looking out for street crime. They also admitted they don't have any standard procedures for a spontaneous event where there's no organizer that authorities can work with.

INSKEEP: And what insights did you gain, Anthony, when moving around the area where this happened?

KUHN: Well, there were a lot of people at this informal alter. It was the first weekday since the accident happened. There was a lot of raw energy. This is a national tragedy, and such events always seem to be followed by introspection about how this was allowed to happen and how to prevent it. So far, nobody has taken responsibility or held - been held accountable for the tragedy. But that may happen later as the investigation goes on and makes clearer the causes of this tragedy.

INSKEEP: Anthony, thanks so much.

KUHN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn. 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.