News of Itaewon made them call their children in Korea — but police answered instead

Posted on : 2022-11-01 15:19 KST Modified on : 2022-11-01 15:19 KST
Parents across the globe with children in Korea feared the worst when they saw news of the tragic crowd crush in Itaewon, one of most multicultural areas in all of Korea
Handwritten messages and white chrysanthemums cover the area around Exit 1 of Itaewon Station, near the site of a crowd crush that killed over 150 on Oct. 29. (Kim Myoung-jin/The Hankyoreh)
Handwritten messages and white chrysanthemums cover the area around Exit 1 of Itaewon Station, near the site of a crowd crush that killed over 150 on Oct. 29. (Kim Myoung-jin/The Hankyoreh)

“My daughter really loved Korea. When she told me she wanted to go, I didn’t oppose it. I told her to have a good time.”

Ayumu Tomikawa, a 60-year-old resident of Nemuro on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, found out about the Halloween crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood while watching the news on Sunday morning.

After recovering from the shock, he went to call his daughter Mei, 26, who had traveled to Seoul for a language study program four months earlier. There was no answer.

Shaking off the ominous feeling that was creeping up inside him, he picked up the phone again. After a while, he got an answer, but it was someone else on the other end — not his daughter, but a Korean police officer.

“I thought she would be sleeping. I never imagined she would have been there,” Tomikawa was quoted as saying in the Monday edition of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, his voice trailing off at the end.

The Korean police officer explained to the frantic father that Mei’s phone had been found on the ground at the scene of the tragedy. Tomikawa continued to hold out hopes, but sometime after 5 pm, he was called by an official with the Japanese government, who told him his daughter had died.

A total of 156 people died in the crush, which happened in Korea’s most multicultural neighborhood. The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that 26 of them were foreign nationals.

They came from 14 different countries: five from Iran, four each from China and Russia, two each from the US and Japan, and one each from France, Australia, Norway, Austria, Vietnam, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Sri Lanka.

Like their Korean counterparts, these were ordinary young people living from day to day, each harboring their own dreams.

Steven Blesi, 20, attended Kennesaw State University in the US state of Georgia before arriving in Korea last August as an international student at Hanyang University. He had wanted to study abroad since the time he entered college but ended up unable to do so for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, he had the opportunity to travel to Korea for the fall semester this year.

Describing this journey to Korea as his son’s first big adventure, Blesi’s father told the New York Times on Sunday that he had received a message from him just before he went to Itaewon, explaining that he had finished his midterms and was going out to have fun with friends.

Blesi’s family members also called his phone when they found out about the tragedy. Once again, it was a Korean police officer who answered.

They desperately held out hopes that their son had merely been hospitalized, but finally they received a call from the US Embassy confirming their worst fears. It’s a memory that the family members say will be difficult to live with for the rest of their lives.

Also found dead was Anne Gieske, a 20-year-old nursing student at the University of Kentucky who was also studying for the semester at Hanyang. She had turned 20 the day before the tragedy.

Gieske reportedly went to Itaewon with friends to celebrate the occasion. Her Instagram account featured a photo of her in front of a birthday cake by the Han River, along with others showing her visiting Jeju Island and Korean palaces.

PrimaMedia, which is published in Russia’s far east, reported Monday that all four of the Russian nationals killed in the Halloween crowd crush were women in their 20s. The Russian victims are to be transported by ship to the country’s far east region.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that many users of Weibo, one of China’s main social media services, were expressing their condolences for the Itaewon tragedy.

“You can’t imagine how intense the surge was,” a Chinese national who had been at the scene told Weibo.

“It was like having a 100-kilogram rock on top of me. There was a girl next to me who was unable to move. I heard her crying as she slowly stopped breathing,” they said.

Nasser Kanaani, the spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said the Iranian Embassy in Seoul “considers securing the legal and consular rights of the Iranian victims of the incident a priority.”

In a message on Twitter, US President Joe Biden wrote that he and first lady Jill Biden “send our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones in Seoul.”

“We grieve with the people of the Republic of Korea and wish for a quick recovery to all those who were injured,” he continued.

By Kim So-youn, Tokyo correspondent; Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent; Kim Mi-hyang, staff reporter

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

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