Families recount dreams of Itaewon crowd victims, cut down in prime

Posted on : 2022-11-01 15:26 KST Modified on : 2022-11-01 15:26 KST
Most of the over 150 people killed in the crowd crush on Halloween weekend were young, seemingly with their whole lives ahead of them
An individual holds a kerchief to their eyes after visiting a memorial altar set up in Seoul Plaza on Oct. 31 to honor the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
An individual holds a kerchief to their eyes after visiting a memorial altar set up in Seoul Plaza on Oct. 31 to honor the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)

“Two of his friends managed to get out, but the other three died together where they were standing. Their bodies were suspended there in the press, unable to fall to the ground.”

When 55-year-old Kim Yeong-jo saw a news bulletin about the crowd crush that occurred in the Itaewon neighborhood of Seoul on the evening of Saturday, Oct. 29, she thought of her 25-year-old son.

“He got a job straight out of high school, which really took a load off his dad and me,” Kim recalled.

Her son typically hung out in Pyeongtaek, where he lived, or went down to Jeonju or his hometown of Iksan. But on that evening, he’d gone to Itaewon with four of his friends.

“It’s so packed we can’t find a place to eat,” Kim’s son had said in a phone call around 8 pm.

Kim was nervous, and placed a call to her son, but someone else picked up.

Kim hurriedly packed a bag and left her home in Iksan. Shortly before arriving in Seoul, she was told that her son was dead.

“Crowds have got to be kept under control somehow, but they didn’t do enough in that regard. These were unnatural deaths, you know? If they were fated to die that way, I guess there wasn’t anything that could be done.”

An individual holds their hand over their eyes after visiting a memorial altar set up in Seoul Plaza on Oct. 31 to honor the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush. (Kang Chang-kwang/The Hankyoreh)
An individual holds their hand over their eyes after visiting a memorial altar set up in Seoul Plaza on Oct. 31 to honor the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush. (Kang Chang-kwang/The Hankyoreh)

When Kim was interviewed on Monday afternoon, she was sitting with bloodshot eyes in the waiting room of Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital. She hadn’t even held a wake for her son yet.

As the victims of the crowd crush in Itaewon are identified, their families are hurrying to arrange wakes. The people who spoke with the Hankyoreh at wakes held on Sunday evening and Monday wept as they recalled their precious sons, daughters, nephews, nieces and friends, all lost at such a young age.

This reporter visited Sahmyook Medical Center at 10:40 am on Monday. As the wake was gearing up to accept mourners, a middle-aged man with streaks of white in his hair was standing there vacantly, his hands clasped together. The man’s eyes were fixed on a photograph of his 30-year-old daughter, surnamed Lee, on the screen in front of the visitation room.

Lee had gone over to a friend’s house in Itaewon on Saturday and never returned. She was on her way to a convenience store to buy a late-night snack when she was swept away by the crowd.

“When I got a call [from her friend], I thought someone was trying to defraud me. If only it had been a fraud,” Lee’s father said with a dazed expression on his face.

Lee was “a daughter who not once caused her parents grief.”

In school, she’d been good at her studies, and after getting a job, she’d dedicated herself to her work. For Lee’s father, his daughter was a source of unblemished pride.

While Lee was taken away so unexpectedly, her father hopes she’ll be remembered as a “good friend.”

“They say that life comes and goes like the clouds above us, but it’s still so sad and unfortunate that I have to outlive my own daughter. Even so, I hope her friends will remember her as a good friend and that her boyfriend will remember the good times they had together,” her father said.

That same morning, this reporter met the uncle of a 26-year-old victim of the crowd crush surnamed Kim at Bucheon St. Mary’s Hospital. The uncle was having a hard time accepting that his niece was gone.

Despite being a homebody, Kim had made a fateful trip to Itaewon with a friend that Saturday.

“Around 10 pm, she’d texted her mother to say she was going home, and that was the last [we heard from her],” the uncle recalled.

Kim had been on the verge of a new beginning.

“She’d graduated from a university program in China and had returned to Korea to look for a job. She was a quiet girl, very dependable.”

Kim’s uncle was enraged by the government’s failure to prevent the accident that had claimed her life.

“Why didn’t they deploy more police officers? [The situation] could have been controlled, but it wasn’t, right?”

Letters and flowers for the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush have been amassing outside Exit 1 of the Itaewon Station on Oct. 31. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)
Letters and flowers for the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush have been amassing outside Exit 1 of the Itaewon Station on Oct. 31. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)

A 26-year-old victim of the crowd crush surnamed Lee had recently become a certified public accountant (CPA) in the US.

“He’d been so focused on his studies and just when he was about to live a little, this happened,” Lee’s father said at a wake held at the Sahmyook Medical Center on Sunday evening.

“I’d been bragging about my son to all my friends, but he never got to put his CPA to use.”

A box of Jagabee potato chips lay in front of Lee’s photograph.

“The table seemed a little bare, so I was wondering what kind of snack he used to like and that’s what came to mind,” Lee’s father explained.

That same day, this reporter met the aunt of a 27-year-old victim of the tragedy surnamed Park at Seoul National University Hospital.

“She was such a dutiful daughter, so dutiful,” said Park’s aunt, who remembered her niece promising to help her hard-working mother retire in comfort.

After working as a nursing assistant, Park enrolled in nursing school this year with the goal of becoming a registered nurse. Park had come up to Itaewon with a friend from nursing school, down in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, when she was caught in the crush.

After hearing the news, Park’s mother raced from Gwangju to Seoul, where she found Park lying in the ICU, on the verge of death.

The aunt said that Park’s mother had featured in all of her unrealized dreams.

“She’d gotten her driver’s license. She said she wanted to buy a used car and take her mom on a trip.”

This reporter met the older brother of a 44-year-old victim of the Itaewon disaster, also surnamed Park, at Soonchunhyang University Hospital on Monday. The mourning older brother had tear stains on his glasses.

Park had been running an online business.

“He didn’t say he was going to a Halloween party, but he apparently did the same thing last year. Perhaps he just wanted to get lost in a crowd since he worked alone,” Park’s older brother said, speculating about why Park would have been at the scene of the disaster.

By Kim Ga-yoon, staff reporter; Kim Min-je, staff reporter; Nam Ji-hyeon, staff reporter; Ko Byung-chan, staff reporter; Kwon Ji-dam, staff reporter; Bang Jun-ho, staff reporter; Jeon Gwang-joon, staff reporter; Chai Yoon-tae, staff reporter

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

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