Koreans search morgues, hospitals for loved ones in disbelief after Itaewon crowd crush

Posted on : 2022-10-31 14:04 KST Modified on : 2022-10-31 14:20 KST
Hospitals in the greater Seoul area were flooded with visitors seeking their loved ones after a crowd crush left more than 150 dead over the weekend
Two people hold each other inside the funeral hall of the Dongguk University Ilsan Medical Center in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, on Oct. 30. (Yonhap)
Two people hold each other inside the funeral hall of the Dongguk University Ilsan Medical Center in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, on Oct. 30. (Yonhap)

“This can't be real. I must be imagining it. How could this happen to our baby?”

The parents wept helplessly after seeing the body of their child, taken from them in the full bloom of youth.

“It can’t be true.”

A woman in her 20s clutched her phone and sobbed after learning of the death of a friend she had been laughing with just a few days earlier.

Wails of grief echoed from every corner of the funeral halls of major hospitals throughout the greater Seoul area, where victims were taken after a crowd crush in the city’s Itaewon neighborhood that left over 150 people dead and a similar number injured.

Scuffles also broke out between emergency workers bringing in additional bodies and the staff of hospitals whose funeral halls were unable to take in any more of the 153 young victims.

The bodies of the people killed in the crush — with the death toll standing at 154 as of Monday morning — were taken in by 59 different hospitals, including Dongguk University Ilsan Medical Center.

Early morning chaos at a gymnasium used to temporarily hold bodies

Throughout the night, citizens anxiously flocked to the hospitals where people crushed in the crowd had been taken and the indoor gymnasium in Seoul’s Yongsan area to find out whether their family and friends had survived.

Dawn had not yet arrived at the gymnasium — where victims were temporarily being held — as family members began running over toward each stretcher they saw in front, weeping desperately as they looked at the faces of each new body to see if it was their missing loved one.

The families of the missing drummed their feet in frustration, while the families of the victims drifted in a daze of desperation.

“This doesn’t make sense. How could they have been crushed to death?”

At 11:55 pm on Saturday, shortly after the accident, Ahn Yeon-seon, 54, heard from a friend of her 19-year-old daughter Seo Ye-sol that her daughter had died. Upon hearing the news, Ahn immediately rushed to the gymnasium.

“I don’t know where to go or what to do. I’m worried about how the funeral will be handled,” Ahn said, while wiping away her tears.

Daughter’s final message: “Thank you for raising me”

As the victims began to be identified around sunrise, the bereaved families gathered at the various morgues at the hospitals where the bodies had been taken.

A 58-year-old man surnamed Kim who was interviewed at Ewha Womans University Mokdong Hospital had just arrived from the countryside after hearing the terrible news that his 27-year-old daughter, who had gone to Itaewon with her boyfriend, had died in the crowd crush.

Kim said his daughter had made reservations at a nice restaurant for him and his wife for his birthday.

“My wife and I had a delicious meal at the restaurant my daughter reserved for us, but she didn’t answer the phone throughout the evening. Who would have thought that something so improbable could happen to us?” he said, his voice shaking and his head hanging low.

The last message he got from his deceased daughter was a birthday greeting. “Thank you for raising me! I’ll make it up to you lol.”

The friends and loved ones who visited the gymnasium described what had happened in similar terms. “It’s unbelievable.” “It seems like a lie.” “This can’t be real.”

The survivors’ shock is made all the worse by the fact that most of the victims were healthy young people, and that they’d never imagined such an accident occurring.

A family that was interviewed at the morgue at Severance Hospital in Sinchon said, “We never imagined this happening to one of our family members.”

A woman who appeared to be a victim’s mother kept saying, “This can’t be happening,” through her sobs.

“I was at the accident with my twin brothers, and I’m the only one who came out alive,” said a crying man in his 20s, his eyes red and puffy.

“Of course this is terrible. What do you want me to say?”

Nowhere to rest on the final journey

On Sunday morning, EMTs bringing victims’ bodies to Dongguk University Ilsan Medical Center got into an argument with staff at the hospital’s morgue. The medical center holds the bodies of 14 victims, more than any other hospital.

The EMTs had brought the bodies after being told that the hospital had room for 20 bodies. But the morgue staff were reluctant to dedicate all their space to victims of the Itaewon tragedy given the possibility of more fatalities at nursing homes nearby.

After wheeling three bodies into the hospital, the EMTs had to wheel them back out again.

“At any rate, we can’t take any more right now,” the morgue staff said.

A body with nowhere to rest was draped in a brown blanket. Sticking out from beneath the blanket’s folds were forlorn pink tennis shoes that their owner had chosen for a fun night out.

By Kwon Ji-dam, staff reporter; Bang Jun-ho, staff reporter; Shim Wu-sam, staff reporter; Kim Min-je, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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