South Korea’s love affair with Itaewon: Selfies help families piece together tragedy that killed 158


“She smiles, look at her smile, her face.” Oh Il-seok looks lovingly at a photograph of his daughter taken in the last hours of her life. As he takes off his glasses to wipe his eyes, his wife whispers, “Ji-min is my friend, she’s my best friend.”

Oh Ji-min, 25, was among 158 people who died in a crush on the crowd during Halloween festivities in Seoul’s Itaewon nightlife district on October 29.

Her parents have the unthinkable task of piecing together her last moments from selfies and photos taken on her cell phone.

At 21:35, photos show Ji-min smiling inside a bar. At 9:59 p.m., he texts a friend to say he’s going home. A few photos with fellow partygoers in costume follow, and then, at 10:07 p.m., the last photo of Ji-min smiling with her friend Kim.

The pair made their way to the subway, weaving their way through the masses. Within minutes they were caught in a panicked crowd and dragged into a narrow alley where scores of people were to die.

A photo of Ji-min and other revelers taken just minutes before the fatal crush.  CNN withheld portions of this image to protect the identities of the people in the background who did not consent to being photographed.

“We didn’t want to go down that alley … it felt like we were absorbed,” recalled Kim, who asked to be identified only by her last name and spoke to CNN in the days before a memorial for the victims . . Friday.

“I got separated from (Ji-min) as two other men walked between us. When that happened, I lost my moccasins, but my feet didn’t touch the ground and people were moving me.

Official sources time the fatal crush as starting at 10:15 p.m., just eight minutes after Ji-min’s last selfie. The 158 deaths took place in the alley – about 4 meters (13 feet) wide – where the two young women were dragged. In addition to the many young South Koreans and 26 foreigners who died, 196 people were injured, including Kim.

“Someone in front of me fell and so did I,” Kim said. “The next thing I knew, I was lying on top of a foreign man and people were piling on top of me and the others. I was on the second layer of this pile.”

Hope came when he saw the face of a paramedic in front of him. He tried to pull a woman out but every time her body moved, the crowd screamed.

“We were already under pressure, but trying to stretch her added more pain, so she had to stop,” Kim said.

A police officer who attended the scene said that when he arrived there were already a pile of bodies in the alley.

“We couldn’t get people out of the bottom, there was too much pressure, I guess they were already dead,” said the agent, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from superiors.

“People in the second and third layers disappeared, screaming for help, but we couldn’t get them out.”

screenshot South Korea research

Video investigation: how a night of celebrations turns into a disaster

Their account matches that of a first responder who told CNN they saw up to “10 rows of faces (but) we couldn’t even see their legs.”

Kim’s memory of his own rescue is hazy. “They took me out and I spent some time lying on the floor. I think I got lost for a while and woke up again. It was about 12:30 in the morning when I was taken in an ambulance.”

“I was in hospital one night and I was discharged. I couldn’t walk until the next morning. I pinched my legs but I didn’t feel anything. I left the hospital but I couldn’t feel my legs for about 10 days”.

Grieving father Oh Il-seok and mother Kim Eun-mi in Siheung City, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea on Dec. 14, 2022.

Ji-min’s mother, Kim Eun-mi, had no idea her daughter was in Itaewon. He started to worry because Ji-min always came home early after a night out.

“I met Ji-min to shop that day since it was Saturday. After shopping we had lunch together and she went to see her friend. So when I heard from my son that he was going to Itaewon, I said, ” No, she went to see her friend.”

Throughout the night, the family made frantic calls to Ji-min’s cell phone, hospitals and the police, visiting her nearby apartment to see if she had returned home.

At 1:00 PM the next afternoon, the family received a call asking them to come and identify Ji-min’s body at the hospital morgue.

“It’s really devastating to identify your own child,” said Kim Eun-mi. Through sobs, her husband added: “When I go to bed the image comes to me and I can’t sleep.”

The family goes to see Ji-min every day at the memorial park near home. Every sleepless night, Ji-min’s parents visit an online chat room that brings together relatives of those who lost loved ones in the tragedy.

Kim Eun-mi said that it is helpful to talk to other people in the same situation because only they can understand others’ pain.

Grief clouds with unanswered questions and anger in the house where Ji-min grew up.

“The most difficult and frustrating part is that no one takes responsibility. The tragedy happened, but no one is responsible,” said Kim Eun-mi.

An advisory group made up of the bereaved families of more than 97 victims of the crush has demanded a formal apology from President Yoon Suk Yeol and demanded the dismissal of the country’s security minister for failing to prevent a tragedy.

While Yoon has expressed his “condolences” to the families, he has stopped short of apologizing, saying that “the people who are specifically responsible” should be held accountable.

Security Minister Lee Sang-min, speaking in October. 30, said the tragedy could not have been prevented by sending the police or fire brigade earlier.

A special investigation is underway at the National Police Agency, but a parliamentary inquiry into political infighting has yet to be launched.

So far, two police officers have been dismissed and arrested, accused of destroying an internal report on the risks posed by large crowds gathering in Itaewon during the Halloween festivities.

Former Yongsan District Police Officer Lee Im-jae is being investigated on suspicion of professional negligence and falsifying an official document, while former Emergency Monitoring Officer Song Byung-joo is being investigated on suspicion of professional negligence.

The police officer who spoke to CNN said he is concerned about the direction the investigation appears to be taking. He fears that it is too focused on the mistakes made after the tragedy rather than the lack of safety planning in advance.

The screenshot will walk and talk

The CNN reporter returns to the narrow alley of Itaewon a day after the Halloween disaster. See how it is

“The problem with this now is that the people who should really be responsible are not taking responsibility. The direction of the investigation is not looking up, only down,” said the policeman.

“There may have been mistakes trying to save just one more life, but if you blame us, who would want to do this job.”

Ji-min’s parents said they had heard nothing from the government since their daughter’s funeral was held.

Politics has no place in the investigation, they said. They want facts about how and where their daughter died and answers to the more difficult question of why.

As they look through a box of birthday cards and photos with friends recovered from their daughter’s apartment, they struggle with the life-changing tragedy that should never have happened.

“She was so warm and lovely,” Kim Eun-mi said of her daughter. “She was such a lovely daughter to me, but she is no longer with me.”

Her voice falters as the sobs overtake her again.

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