By Anthony Spaeth
The Three Alleys neighborhood is where I hang out. It’s stumbling distance from home. Its nickname comes from three small alleys that connect a longer alley running parallel to the main street of Itaewon, an area of Seoul known for restaurants, a mosque, a world class museum, gay bars and foreigners, for it’s right next to an army base the Americans took over from the Japanese.
I was part of the crush of people that killed 151 on Saturday night. I was squeezed out of the crowd around 20 minutes before the tragedy, breathless and close to a panic attack.
I knew it was coming.
Halloween has become increasingly popular in Seoul over the last decade and Itaewon is where this non-Korean holiday is celebrated. It’s an opportunity to get decked out and promenade. Makeshift makeup artists set up booths offering to turn ordinary people into zombies, Jokers and, pardon the irony, bloody victims of carnage.
Because it’s a foreign, recently adopted holiday, Halloween celebrations aren’t codified. They don’t necessarily take place on Oct. 31st, especially if that date falls during the week. This year, Itaewon was crowded with people on Friday night, many in costumes.
But Saturday was the main celebration and apparently 100,000 people came to Itaewon, with the main action in the Three Alleys.
I was thinking of staying in, but a friend messaged me and sent photos of the craziness. I walked over. We met at one of the three alleys. It was 9:30. I proposed checking out my usual bar, Fat Albert’s, and we went up the alley, which was not unusually crowded.
There was no room at the bar.
I said, “Let’s go to a convenience store and buy a beer.”
Instead of returning the way we came, we made the mistake of joining the crowd on the main alley heading toward the Hamilton Hotel, an Itaewon landmark.
The crowd was thick, as it often is on boisterous nights. Even during the pandemic, Halloween was celebrated in Itaewon. A year ago, I stood in Fat Albert’s watching the parade on the alley outside with too many people dressed as pink-suited masked bad guys from “Squid Game.”
On the main alley, we became part of a coagulated crowd moving toward the Hamilton. People were friendly and happy-go-lucky, but I recognized the danger. I remembered the Lan Kwai Fong stampede in Hong Kong in 1993, and the Three Alleys neighborhood was very similar. I knew of the crowd control methods used in New Delhi every year for the August 15 Independence Day celebrations, which attract hundreds of thousands of people.
There was absolutely no crowd control in Itaewon last night.
All we had to do was get to the next alley leading to Itaewon’s main street, make a 90-degree turn, and then we would be okay. But it was slow going because of opposing crowds coming in our direction. As we inched forward, I tried to keep to one side of the alley or the other, figuring I could leap into a bar if a stampede started.
The most aggressive behavior in the crowd — and this beggars imagination — was by staff members of one of the bars trying to protect people lined up waiting to get into their bar! They pushed back against the crowd angrily with their butts.
After a seemingly long time, although it was mere minutes, we reached the corner to the alley and rounded it. But then things only got worse. The crowd started swaying, with mass moans, and I could feel myself losing purchase with the ground. Panic was starting and some women were crying. Unbelievably, one of the obstacles in that small alley was a makeup booth still hoping to get customers.
I couldn’t understand why we weren’t home free until I realized people were still surging in the opposite direction, fighting us to get into the Three Alleys.
For some of them, that was a fatal mistake.
My friend and I got to a convenience store and drank a couple of beers in another part of Itaewon, admiring the costumes: Leatherface, Jigsaw, Maverick from “Top Gun.” I walked home past the ambulances bringing out the dead from the Three Alleys.
My walk home brought me past many bars. The Halloween partying continued on.