Death comes like a thief in the night: The Itaewon Halloween and Ozone fire tragedies

By: ATTY. DENNIS GORECHO - Columnist/CDN Digital | October 31,2023 - 08:00 AM

Death comes like a thief in the night. What was supposed to be a fun night might turn out to be the greatest tragedy of lives.

When death enfolds in the form of accidents, no one is prepared for it. People perish due to their own mistakes or pay with their lives for the mistakes of others. A small mistake or an error of judgment may prove costly for oneself or for the lives of others.

A year ago this week, social media was flooded with news of the unfortunate incident in Itaewon, Seoul, South Korea on October 29, 2022 that led to the death of at least 150 people.

Itaewon is known as the party hub of Seoul which is studded with vintage shops, restaurants, pubs inspired by Western countries, and night clubs along its steeply sloping and twisted alleyways on either side of the main road.

Days before the deadly crowd crush incident, I walked every night around the neighborhood of Itaewon to explore the area since I was staying in a nearby hotel.

It is beyond my imagination that at least 150 people will die of cardiac arrest as Halloween revelers crushed their way into a small alley leading to the main party area.

The tragedy occurred during Seoul’s first Halloween festivities in three years.

Some 100,000 people were estimated to have passed through the neighborhood excited about the prospect of partying again after two years of strict Covid restrictions in the country.

It was about 10:20 p.m. (South Korea time) when the situation turned desperate as a number of people in an alley going to the main street fell over, causing a massive crush. Crowds pressing from both ends of the narrow alley caused more difficulty for people to get out.

Among the victims, nearly a hundred were women while over 50 were men, and most were in their 20s and 30s. Another estimated 150 people were injured as partygoers fell and were trampled over by the crowd.

Twenty-six foreign nationals are among the dead, from countries including China, Japan, Iran, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Norway.

Crowd crush occurs when a group of people is packed so close together that no one can move and they keep pushing, causing the crowd to fall in a “domino effect” making it hard to get up.

A crowd crush is created by the press of human bodies on a central point or points while stampedes are usually created when a crowd starts fleeing from danger or a perceived danger.

The most common injury and death during a crowd crush is “compressive asphyxia”, which occurs when people are pushed against one another so tightly that their airways become constricted.

Cause of death is generally attributed to suffocation as the lungs do not find enough space to expand, making it difficult to breathe. It takes 30 seconds before one loses consciousness, and about six minutes for one to suffer compressive or restrictive asphyxia.

Halloween is not a holiday traditionally celebrated in South Korea, but with the city fast becoming a cosmopolitan hub, it has become a more popular occasion.

It initially became a cherished tradition in Itaewon due to the proximity to the U.S. military base and has since spread around the city.  In the 1990s and early 2000s, Itaewon was known as a red-light district largely supported by US troops. But it has reinvented itself as a nightlife hub catering to a large contingent of foreigners and expats, reflecting global influences and values.

In the Philippines, the Ozone Disco fire in Quezon City is known as the worst club fire in local history, and among the 10 worst  in the world.

The fire broke out just before midnight on March 18, 1996, leaving at least 162 people dead.

At the time of the fire, it was estimated that there were around 350 patrons and 40 club employees partying the night away inside within the walls of the jam-packed 50-square-meter Ozone Disco —an area that could only safely hold up to 100 people.

Most of the club guests were high school and college students attending graduation or end-of-the-school-year celebrations.

There were  sparks flying inside the disc jockey’s booth shortly before midnight, followed by smoke which many thought as special effects.

After about 15 seconds of smoke, the electrical systems of the disco shut down. Flames quickly became visible as the fire engulfed the whole room really fast.

As people tried pushing their way through the door, the harder it was to get out because the door could only be opened inwards.

The club’s emergency exit was blocked by a new building next door, and that there was no proper water sprinklers and fire exit installed.

Many of the bodies were discovered along the corridor leading to the only exit, piled up waist-high.

In March 2015, a week before the 19th anniversary of the tragedy, the building was finally demolished.

(Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786.)


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