Seoul, South Korea
South Korean authorities said on Monday they had no guidelines for managing large crowds gathered for Halloween celebrations in Seoul, as families in the country and around the world mourned the 156 people who died in a stampede on Saturday night.
The crush took place on a narrow neon-lightway street in the popular nightlife district of Itaewon, where witnesses described being unable to move or breathe as thousands of revelers stood shoulder to shoulder in ‘road less than four meters (13 feet) wide. .
Desperate families spent much of Sunday meeting at information centers where authorities gathered details of the dead and injured, contacting coroners and hospitals in a desperate effort to find relatives. empty.
With all the victims now identified, the fear has turned into national mourning as the country grapples with one of its worst tragedies – as parents from abroad make arrangements for their dead children and another country.
An official memorial was erected in central Seoul on Monday, and photos show crowds of people visiting to pay their respects. Many were in tears and holding white flowers; others knelt down and bowed to the altar.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, his wife, Kim Keon-hee, and government officials including the prime minister and mayor of Seoul joined the mourners.
Many shops and stores were closed for a week of national mourning. A part of central Seoul was almost deserted – something never seen before in the area usually a vibrant capital of about ten million people.
People pay their respects at a memorial site in Itaewon, outside a train station near the site of the crash. The port’s entrance is decorated with rows of flowers, and gifts such as handwritten notes, bottles of Korean soju wine and paper cups filled with wine.
Among the mourners was a local group whose families lost their lives in the Sewol Ferry disaster, which killed 304 people – mostly teenagers on a school trip – when the ferry sank in 2014.
One of the members told reporters during the commemoration: “As someone who has the same pain, my heart is breaking and I became mute, saying that it hurt the families. to see “a great calamity like this again and again.”
Just down the road, the gate has been locked, and security guards stand guard as white-collared inspectors search the area, which is littered with trash and debris.
Amidst this grief, questions have emerged about how the government handled the incident and the apparent lack of population control before the disaster.
One survivor, 22-year-old French revolutionary student Anne-Lou Chevalier, told CNN that she died in the crowd after being “crushed” by fellow gang members. “Sometimes I have no air, and we are so frustrated with others that I can’t breathe at all. So, I will go,” said Chevalier.
Many eyewitnesses and survivors said they had seen few policemen in the area before the situation worsened.
Earlier on Sunday, the interior and defense minister said only “regular” security forces had been deployed to Itaewon because the crowd there did not appear to be large – while “numbers” of police had been sent to Itaewon. ‘another side. of Seoul in response to the expected protests.
But – facing a backlash from Korean politicians and on social media – authorities appeared to be reversing course on Monday, saying they had evacuated around 137 workers to Itaewon that night. , compared to about 30 to 70 workers last year before the epidemic.
“For this season’s Halloween festival, because many people are expected to gather in Itaewon, I understand that it has been prepared by deploying more police than other years,” Oh Seung-jin , head of the Violent Crime Investigation Unit said. National Police Agency.
However, he admitted, “currently there is no separate preparation manual for such a situation where there is no organizer and a meeting of the crowd is expected.” Also, the police were deployed not for crowd control – but for crime prevention and preventing “all kinds of illegal behavior.”
Kim Seong-ho, head of the disaster management and security department at the Ministry of Interior and Safety, echoed the comments, saying they have no “instructions or manuals” for such “unprecedented situations.”
The victims were young people who visited Itaewon on Saturday night, eager for South Korea’s first Halloween festival in a year without Covid restrictions.
The death toll rose to 156 on Tuesday after the death of a seriously injured woman in her 20s, Seoul police said. In total, 101 women and 55 men were killed.
Twelve of the victims were teenagers and more than 100 were in their 20s, according to authorities.
Among them are 26 foreigners from countries including the United States, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway, France, Russia, Austria, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Another 149 were injured, 33 seriously, including 15 foreigners.
Six students who attended a school in Seoul – one high school student and five high school students – were among the dead, along with three teachers, Korea’s Education Ministry said.
Three South Korean soldiers were also among those killed, a South Korean defense ministry official said.
Two American college students – Steven Blesi from Georgia, and Anne Gieske from Kentucky – were both discovered in their junior year.
Blesi’s father, Steve Blesi, said his son “has always been a traveler.” He is an Eagle Scout, enjoys basketball and wants to learn more languages, he said.
“Maybe half an hour before this tragedy happened, I sent him a message on WhatsApp… ‘I know you’re leaving. Stay safe. I love you.’ And I never got a response,” Steve said. “He had a bright future that is now disappearing.”
Dan Gieske, Anne’s father, said in a statement Sunday evening that the family was “devastated and heartbroken,” calling Anne “a shining light that was loved by all.”
Anne is a former nursing student studying abroad in Seoul this semester, the president of the University of Kentucky said.
The father of Mei Tomikawa, a 26-year-old Japanese exchange student who was killed in the fire, told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK that he “prepared for the worst” when he was unable to reach her.
He was learning Korean before starting school in Seoul, he said, speaking before he left Japan for South Korea on Monday.
“I tried to call him to warn him to be careful, but he never answered his phone,” she said, according to NHK. “She’s a great daughter… I want to see my daughter as soon as possible.”
The family of the Australian victim, Grace Rached, also released a statement on Monday describing her as “a talented actress who was passionate about making a difference.”
“We are missing our beautiful angel Grace who lit up a room with her smile. Grace made others feel important and her kindness touched everyone she met. Grace always cared about others and was loved by all,” the family wrote.
Authorities are now working with embassies and expatriate families, providing support and funeral arrangements. As the week goes on, more names and faces of the dead may emerge, as the nation searches for answers to how such a tragedy – in an area famously crowded with Halloween, and week-long events and arrangements – has strength. has not been revealed.