A "soft bang," nightclub chaos -- and two dead

GWANGJU, South Korea — It was 2:39 a.m. Saturday and the party was in full swing at a nightclub called Coyote Ugly near the athlete village here at the 2019 FINA aquatics world championships. 

The women’s water polo tournament had ended just hours before, the Americans winners Friday evening over Spain, and literally hundreds of happy people — water polo players, swimmers and team officials from all over Planet Earth — were jammed into the place, dozens dancing on an upper deck.

Suddenly, there was, as one witness would later describe it, a “soft bang.”

And all hell broke loose.

Police stand watch Saturday in front of the Coyote Ugly nightclub // Getty Images

Police stand watch Saturday in front of the Coyote Ugly nightclub // Getty Images

The aftermath: the collapsed deck // Yonhap

The aftermath: the collapsed deck // Yonhap

The deck, which the Yonhap news agency reported had been illegally constructed to accommodate more customers, collapsed.

A spokesman for the Gwangju Seobu fire station, according to the South China Morning Post, said two South Koreans were killed, authorities later saying one was 38 years old, the other 27. Yonhap reported at least nine foreign athletes had been hurt: eight water polo players — four Americans, two from New Zealand and one apiece from Holland and Italy — and a swimmer from Brazil.

USA Water Polo on Saturday afternoon identified the four, two female and two male:

— Kaleigh Gilchrist suffered a deep cut to her left leg and required surgery. Paige Hauschild’s right arm was cut; she needed stitches.

— Johnny Hooper needed stitches for a cut to his left hand. Ben Hallock reported scraped to his leg but did not need stitches.

Earlier, USA Water Polo chief executive Christopher Ramsey had released a statement that said, “This is an awful tragedy… Our hearts go out to the victims of the crash and their families,” adding, “We are grateful to all those who lended assistance.” 

FINA released a statement that said, in part, the federation “deeply regrets the situation and sends its best wishes to any victims of this accident.”

By late Saturday, full details remained to be made public.

More than 300 people — the South China Morning Post, citing witnesses, put attendance at more than 370 — were packed into the club early Saturday when the upper deck, perhaps 15 feet above the bar, gave way.

The New Zealand Herald, citing a Korean news outlet, fixed the time of the collapse precisely at 2:39.

“We were just dancing and then the next minute we dropped five to six meters and everyone started rushing out of the club after that,” New Zealand water polo captain Matt Small, 26, who had been in the club with seven or eight teammates, told the Herald.

“We, I guess, fell on top of the heads of other people that were beneath us.”

He also said, ‘[It was] business as usual, and then it literally collapsed beneath our feet.”

The Morning Post reported that a Gwangju police officer said the building’s two co-owners and two workers at the club were being questioned about licensing and construction.

A team official who was on-scene but below, by the bar, looked up to see the deck “full” with dancers. “The stage above the bar was moving,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “There were people dancing. Suddenly the whole stage, the whole floor, came down.”

He also said, “We tried to lift up the whole stage. We saw that a couple [athletes] were injured. We pulled out three Koreans. We couldn’t do any more. There was water everywhere. One of the pipes broke.”

There was no warning, he said. “You didn’t hear nothing. I heard one soft bang … one of the poles, the main poles, it broke. It was all corroded.

“… It broke on the left side. On the right side, it was still holding on. On the left side, you were completely on the floor.”