“Be free of pain”: Documenting the 3,584 messages left for victims of Itaewon tragedy

Posted on : 2022-11-24 16:57 KST Modified on : 2022-11-24 16:57 KST
The Hankyoreh documented thousands of notes left at Exit 1 of Itaewon Station, near where more than 150 people lost their lives last month
Handwritten notes cover the signpost for Exit 1 of Itaewon Station on Nov. 7. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)
Handwritten notes cover the signpost for Exit 1 of Itaewon Station on Nov. 7. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)

Notes and letters mourning the victims who died in the tragic Itaewon crush last month began appearing around Exit 1 of Itaewon Station, near the site of the disaster, the very next day.

People who lost loved ones and friends, survivors of the disaster, citizens who jumped into action to help victims that fateful day, and witnesses who could do nothing but watch — people came from far and wide to try to express their heavy hearts in just a few sentences on small sticky notes.

For nine days from the day after the disaster to Nov. 7, the Hankyoreh recorded 3,584 such notes (total of 148,398 characters) near Exit 1 of Itaewon Station. The notes were transcribed to make sure they wouldn’t be scattered or lost. Notes that were written by hand and not typed were either very tidy or a bit clumsy, likely because they represented the first time their authors had put pen to paper in a while.

Some of the collected notes read as follows:

“Young people who couldn’t blossom yet, may you be free of pain and happy in heaven.”

“I’m sorry we couldn’t protect your dazzling, beautiful youth.”

“I pray that the dreams that you couldn't achieve at such a beautiful age will be able to come true to your heart's content in heaven.”

“It’s such a pity that youth in their 20s were lost so quickly. Please fulfill all the dreams you couldn’t here over there.”

There were many notes that expressed sorrow for how these young people had died before being able to realize their dreams.

Among the 3,584 notes written in tribute to the victims, the word “please” was recorded 576 times, the word “heart” was recorded 371 times, “dream” 227 times, and “youth” 124 times.

Among the notes written by family and acquaintances of the victims who mourned the loss of their loved ones, the word “remembrance” was recorded 213 times, “us” 198 times, “friends” 192 times, and “love” 189 times. Many also expressed their hope that there would be no suffering “over there” in heaven. The word “place” to refer to the sky or heaven was recorded 1,217 times.

The word for “wrong” or “mistake” was also used 159 times in the notes, but the term wasn’t referring to those who were in Itaewon that day. Notes saying “It’s not your fault” and “You have absolutely no fault at all” showed that many people were not in agreement with how some were trying to shift the responsibility for what happened onto the victims themselves.

This is also the reason why the words “state,” “government,” and “responsibility” were recorded 67, 24, and 56 times, respectively.

The word “adult” also appeared in the notes 105 times, including in the following ones.

“How can adults not be ashamed and sorry.”

“As an adult, I couldn’t protect you and I feel terrible, ashamed, and sorry.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. As someone belonging to the older generation, I am ashamed I wasn’t able to protect your right to life, safety and freedom.”

“Precious sons and daughters, I’m sorry. I truly am sorry that, as a resident of Itaewon, I wasn’t able to protect you.”

Besides Korean citizens, 26 young people from 14 countries also lost their lives that day at Itaewon. There were many notes written in foreign languages such as English, Japanese and French. The word “rest” for “rest in peace” was used 100 times in the collected notes.

How the data was collected

The Hankyoreh Itaewon disaster reporting team (reporters Ko Byung-chan, Kwak Jin-san, Park Ji-young, Seo Hye-mi, Lee Woo-yun, Jang Ye-ji, Jang Hyeon-eun, Jeon Gwang-jun, and Chai Yoon-tae) visited the memorial space set up near Exit 1 of Itaewon Station from Oct. 30 till Nov. 7. All of the notes of commemoration left there by citizens were captured in 356 photos.

Besides those notes that were stuck together, damaged or difficult to read, a total of 3,584 notes were selected and transcribed one by one. The Hankyoreh’s media planning tech team used a morphological analyzer to classify the 148,398 characters and selected 275 words, excluding grammatical particles, that appeared more than 11 times.

By Park Ji-young, staff reporter

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

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