SEOUL, Oct. 28 (UPI) -- On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Halloween crowd crush that left 159 dead, small groups of visitors returned to bars and clubs near the Itaewon site of the tragedy amid a massive security presence.
While revelers returned on Saturday night, costumes were in short supply and Halloween-themed decorations were non-existent in the nightlife neighborhood.
Police, however, were out in a tremendous show of force -- a sharp contrast to last Oct. 29, when authorities faced heavy criticism for failing to prepare for a turnout of more than 100,000 partygoers and then botching their response to the dangerous, ultimately deadly, overcrowding in a narrow alley.
This year, temporary barricades were erected to create one-way pedestrian traffic flows, with teams of officials in yellow vests directing crowds with light batons as emergency workers and lines of ambulances stood by.
For some visitors, the effect was both reassuring and slightly surreal.
"It's very different here tonight," Choi Song-joo said as he pondered whether to stick around or move on to another neighborhood. "My feelings are up and down about it."
Itaewon's bar owners, who were only beginning to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic before last year's tragedy struck, were also unsure of what to expect on what has traditionally been the busiest weekend of the year.
"It's a hard situation," Will Watson, owner of Irish pub Shenanigans, said. "We're just trying to go along with the mood of the neighborhood tonight."
The weekend's heightened security measures spread to several other popular nightlife and tourism areas in Seoul, including Hongdae and Myeongdong, with the city's police force deploying more than 1,200 personnel to reinforce safety in areas that are expected to draw large crowds.
On-site command posts were set up in four districts, while the fire department said it was pre-allocating hospital beds to handle any emergency patients from an accident.
Visitors to Itaewon on Saturday also stopped by to leave notes on a memorial wall at the entrance to the narrow lane where the crush took place, which was officially designated the "October 29 Memorial Alley." Families of the victims and survivors spoke out earlier this week, saying that they are still waiting for answers and accountability from the South Korean government for the disaster.
As Saturday night wore on in Itaewon, however, the mood wasn't entirely somber. Music poured out from balconies and open-air patios on the mild October evening while a modest but steady stream of bar-hoppers continued to arrive.
One group of about ten friends gathered near the memorial in costumes of witches' hats and face paint, determined to spread some cheer throughout the neighborhood by singing songs, greeting visitors and handing out ribbons and stickers.
"We came to mourn joyfully," Kin Jio, a member of the group, said. "We want to send the message that what happened last year wasn't [the victims'] fault. The people who came here to enjoy Halloween, this was not their responsibility."