SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — As bereaved families and friends struggle to make sense of a Halloween crowd crush that killed 156 people in South Korea’s capital, their grief is mixed with anger about officials’ failure to employ crowd controls in a small nightlife district jammed with tens of thousands of partiers.
Many expressed wrenching pain and deep frustration about what they saw as official ineptitude, including a failure by police to adequately respond to repeated emergency calls from people about the swelling crowd getting out of control hours before the crush occurred Saturday evening in a narrow alley near the Hamilton Hotel in the Itaewon entertainment district.
Here are the stories of some of the grieving family members and friends.
“I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO DIE”
“Let’s go, let’s go,” Han Gyu-chang, wearing heavy Halloween makeup and a ninja headband, wrote on Facebook as he posted a selfie with two of his closest friends as they headed to Itaewon in a car. He added, “We’re too old for this silliness.”
The 32-year-old didn’t survive.
One of the friends of 15 years, Choi Young-gyu, described how they were swept up and separated by a wave of bodies pushing forward in the alley between a row of storefronts and the Hamilton Hotel, before people started falling like dominos.
“We were just there for like 20, 30 minutes and all that happened,” Choi told The Associated Press, his voice cracking.
Crushed by layers of falling bodies and desperately fighting for air, Choi said he closed his eyes thinking he was about to die before emergency workers and others pulled him out at the last minute. The other friend was rescued by another partier who managed to pull him into a basement club among the row of storefronts. Hours later, the friend called Choi, crying, after discovering Han was among the rows of lifeless bodies laid out on the streets.
“He was so excited to go to a Halloween celebration, because he never did before,” Choi said of Han.
Choi is receiving medical treatment for various injuries, including a foot that has “swollen like an elephant,” he said. The other friend hurt his back.
Grappling with shock and grief, Choi said he is having trouble sleeping.
“Everything is too horrible and everything is too fresh. I mean, I saw corpses rolled out in the streets,” he said.
Choi wonders how many police officers it would have taken to prevent the crush. He struggles to understand why officials didn’t plan crowd controls and ignored emergency calls.
“I lost a friend, and I want to see someone held accountable,” he said.
“A COMMON COMPANY EMPLOYEE”
At a hospital funeral hall in western Seoul, Lee Hyeon-jik performed his role as the “sangju,” the chief family member organizing a funeral, receiving a continuing flow of guests bowing to his late brother’s portrait and serving them food at an adjacent dining hall.
The tables were packed with dozens of middle-aged workers -– many wearing workshop jackets and vests with plastic nametags -– chatting about work, life and teenage children who no longer talked to them. They were doing their own part in Korean tradition to keep funerals busy and noisy so that bereaved relatives aren’t overwhelmed by grief.
“What could be said about him?” Lee said about his brother, Lee Jeong-hwan, a 49-year-old electronics repairman who was among the oldest victims of the crush in Itaewon. “He was the most common company employee.”
Lee Jeong-hwan worked for a Samsung Electronics affiliate that repairs and maintains devices like TVs, computers, washing machines and cellphones. The guests remembered him as a personable and hardworking colleague who was passionate about union activities.
Lee Hyeon-jik said he didn’t learn about his brother’s death until Sunday, the day after the tragedy, when the company called to ask whether he had been able to contact his brother. He reached out to police, who confirmed that his brother was killed near the Hamilton Hotel.
Emergency workers had administered CPR to him as he lay unconscious, but he was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
Lee Hyeon-jik avoided any specific criticism when asked about the lack of crowd control, saying his focus was on giving his brother a proper funeral.
“IT COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED”
Steven Tomas Blesi wanted to travel and experience adventure, so he was excited to spend a semester in South Korea as a junior majoring in international business at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University, according to his father, Steve Blesi.
During his first two months, he hiked to see waterfalls and a volcano on Jeju Island. He sent his family a video from the island showing the sun and waves.
Blesi recalled how his son would dash off on his own as a child when the family visited stores, prompting the older Blesi to joke that they were going to have to put a leash on him.
“That was our boy. He wanted to explore and just get out there,” Blesi said in a phone interview.
Steven Blesi, 20, was among 26 foreign nationals who died in the crush. He had told his father he was going out with friends after finishing midterms. When the family learned about the crowd surge, they frantically called his phone. A police officer eventually answered and said the phone had been recovered from the area.
Blesi said he was furious because police appeared to have done nothing to manage the crowd though it was expected to be big after the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions.
“In my opinion, it could have been avoided,” he said.
Blesi picked up his older son from Auburn University and brought him home to be with the family. The two brothers were best friends growing up.
“We’re just numb and devastated to be honest with you,” he said. “I have no idea how we’re going to press forward, but we have our other son who is 21, and we owe it to him to do so. And we owe it to Steven’s memory too.”
“JUST TOO MANY PEOPLE”
Nathan Taverniti, a 24-year-old Australian tourist, painfully recalled how the outstretched hands of his desperate friend disappeared into the surging crowd as people began screaming and piling up.
“There were just too many people,” he said.
Grace Rached, a Sydney-based film production assistant, was the lone Australian killed in the crush.
“We are missing our gorgeous angel Grace, who lit up the room with her infectious smile,” her family said in a statement.
Taverniti, like many other survivors, blamed the huge loss of life on what he sees as official ineptitude. He said he cried all day after finding Rached’s body at a facility where unidentified victims were kept.
“If the government knows that there were going to be that many people there, and there is going to be road blockages, these should be enough police and emergency services already there on standby,” he said. “There was clearly not enough police presence.”
“NOT ABLE TO DO ANYTHING”
Most of the families of the victims completed the traditional third-day funeral procession on Wednesday, dressed in black and carrying the portrait and remains of their loved ones to crematories and cemeteries. The Seoul City government instructed crematories to burn more bodies per day as part of plans to support the funeral proceedings.
The street in front of the narrow alley is now covered with rows of white flowers and notes expressing sorrow. Seoul has also established memorial altars in multiple places that have been visited by tens of thousands.
One of the people visiting the altar in front of Seoul City Hall was Hwang Jang Seop, who said he lost both of his grandchildren.
“My grandson and granddaughter said they would go to Itaewon on Saturday. I asked them why they were going, and they said there was a festival there,” he said. “I feel so sorry as a grandfather, not able to do anything.”
AP journalists Chisato Tanaka in Seoul, South Korea, and Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta, Georgia, contributed to this report.