Many chose to visit the lively Itaewon nightlife district to celebrate their first Halloween since authorities eased social distancing regulations. Their deaths have reverberated far and wide — at least 26 of the victims were foreign nationals — and South Korea’s collective trauma is just beginning.
Here are some of their stories.
Steven Blesi, 20
Since his freshman year of college, Steven Blesi had dreamed of spending a semester abroad. The coronavirus pandemic delayed it for two years. But this fall, the Marietta, Ga., native and Kennesaw State University junior finally got his chance. “He was an extrovert; he was full of adventure,” his father, Steve Blesi, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “And this was his first big adventure.”
Blesi was partway through the semester when, his family said, he died in Saturday’s crowd crush. He was 20 years old. He loved basketball and his pets — a gecko, turtles and hermit crabs. He became an Eagle Scout like his brother, Joey, who is older by about a year, and went to college with hopes of working in international business.
Blesi’s father and his wife had just returned home from grocery shopping Saturday when his brother contacted them: Had they seen what happened in Seoul? Was Steven okay? The family was “constantly calling and calling and calling and calling with no answer,” his father said. They are making arrangements for Blesi’s remains to be returned to the United States, where “he’ll be with us from here to the day we die.” — Brittany Shammas
Choi Boseong, 24
Choi Boseong last texted his girlfriend about 9 p.m. It was supposed to be a celebratory night for his 24th birthday, spent with two best friends. When the crowd became uncontrollable, he got separated from them. His girlfriend, Gabriela Pares, who was in the United States watching the scene on a TikTok live stream, grew worried and tried calling and texting. No response.
When she called his sister, who lives about 40 minutes away from Itaewon, his family hadn’t yet realized the extent of the tragedy. His father, sister and friend searched hospitals throughout Seoul, Pares said. He was last seen wearing a green jacket, a white shirt and blue jeans. Someone had found his jacket and his cellphone on the ground and returned it to his friend.
After waiting for news from half a world away, Pares heard the worst: Her boyfriend had died. Now she’s headed to South Korea to be around his family “to say goodbye to the love of my life … and on his birthday,” Pares wrote in a tweet. “Life is so unfair.”
In a text message, she said that he was the most caring and lovable person she’d met, and that he would “forever be the most extraordinary.” “He always lived for his friends, family and his dog Im-jja,” Pares said. “For me, he will always be the love of my life, in this one and the next one.” — Kelly Kasulis Cho
Grace Rached, 23
Grace Rached, a 23-year-old from Australia, was the “life of the party” — someone who “lit up a room with her infectious smile” and “always made others feel important.”
Her family, in a statement shared with reporters, said the production assistant was “passionate about making a difference.” After graduating in 2021 from the University of Technology Sydney with a bachelor’s degree in media arts and production, Rached worked for the film production company Electriclime, according to her LinkedIn profile. “Producing quality and revolutionary stories is what it’s all about,” she wrote on LinkedIn.
Rached traveled frequently, posting on Instagram in recent weeks from Bali and Mexico. She was out with friends in Seoul on Saturday to celebrate Halloween when she and others were “crushed at Itaewon,” her friend who goes by Nathan Taeveniti said in a widely viewed TikTok video. Earlier videos from the night showed Rached dancing with friends, dressed up as Audrey Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly from the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
In her own TikTok video, posted in August, Rached shared some advice she said she collected in “almost 24 years of life”: “When you go, nothing goes with you,” she said, “so you may as well enjoy your time here.” — Annabelle Timsit
Lee Ji-han, 24
Lee Ji-han was set to make his first appearance in a major TV series this year. The actor hadn’t finished filming his part in the series that would have marked his prime-time debut.
“Bright and genuine actor Lee Ji-han is still vivid in our minds, and it is hard to believe we cannot see him any more,” his management company said in a statement. The series’s broadcaster, MBC, said it has not decided whether his portion will be aired posthumously.
The 24-year-old got his start in South Korea’s entertainment industry as part of a training program for a K-pop management company. In 2017, he competed in a high-profile K-pop talent show titled “Produce 101.” Singers who participated alongside Lee posted condolence messages on social media. “I am sorry and I love you,” said Park Hee-seok, another former contestant who is now a member of K-pop band Xenex. — Min Joo Kim
Shin Ae-jin, 24
A month after starting a new job at the Seoul office of global consulting firm McKinsey, Shin Ae-jin, 24, went out with some friends from work for a night on the town in Seoul’s Itaewon district, according to her father, Shin Jungseob, who had last seen her for coffee earlier Saturday. She never returned home.
Smoking a cigarette outside the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, where his daughter’s body was resting, the elder Shin said his daughter had always challenged herself — and was always smiling.
At around 3 a.m. on Sunday, around five hours after first responders received calls about a crowd crush, Shin’s mother, Kim Namhee, received a call from her daughter’s friend, who said something terrible had happened. The family went on a frantic search, Kim said. The police called Shin’s father Sunday to say they had identified his daughter’s body.
“I was always proud and always so thankful to her,” Kim said of her daughter, a Korea University graduate who majored in biology and business. “She took care of her younger brother so well. You don’t know how much of a big help that is when both parents are working.”
Her parents said some of their best memories were of frequent family vacations abroad, including one to Laos just before the coronavirus pandemic. Shin said he could feel the weight of never getting to see her again. — Andrew Jeong
Anne Gieske, 20
The last photos on Anne Gieske’s Instagram account dedicated to her travels in Seoul were from her birthday celebration near the Han River at sunset, posted on Friday.
Gieske, a nursing student at the University of Kentucky, had just turned 20 and had been in Seoul since August, documenting the trip on her account, @anne_in_seoul.
On Sunday, messages flooded the comment section underneath her birthday post after the University of Kentucky identified her as the second American student who was killed in Itaewon.
Gieske is remembered by friends as kind and selfless, someone who treated the people she met like family. In their statement, her parents, Dan and Madonna Gieske, said their daughter was a “bright light loved by all.”
A native of northern Kentucky, she loved reading, spending time with friends and family, and was an active member of the university’s Catholic community.
During her senior year at Beechwood High School, Gieske was the band’s drum major. She loved music and had been a part of the Beechwood band program since the fifth grade, following in the footsteps of her siblings and other family members.
Gieske was so talented, Beechwood band director Austin Bralley said, she could have been a music major. But he was proud when Gieske told him she’d chosen nursing.
“She had aspirations of making people happy and comfortable,” he said. “Just helping people, taking care of them.” — Praveena Somasundaram
Madina Sherniyazova, 26
Madina Sherniyazova was a travel influencer who loved to write about novel experiences in the far corners of South Korea, including trips to a traditional textile exhibit near the North Korean border and an alpaca farm in the forest.
On Instagram, she garnered thousands of followers trying traditional Korean instruments, attending K-pop dance classes, reviewing beauty products and posting photos of herself savoring each season.
The Kazakhstan native died in the Itaewon crush that claimed more than 156 lives Saturday, the country’s embassy in South Korea confirmed Thursday. She was 26 years old.
Kizzy Kuhn, managing editor of the online publication Sherniyazova wrote for, KoreabyMe, said that she was a talented writer who was fluent in four languages, including Korean, and that she worked as an official tourism ambassador for the city of Seoul.
“She gave you all of the details you needed to replicate her trips but also painted pictures with her words in a way that you felt like you were right there sitting next to her,” Kuhn said. “Every opportunity that came her way, she would grab hold of it without hesitation.”
Nabeela Ami Mohd Yusof, who said she “bonded like a family” with Sherniyazova after meeting her at a tourism program sponsored by the Korean government, remembers her friend as an innately generous person who would volunteer to translate for others or take their pictures while traveling.
“She [would] always be there for any of us, helping us as much as she could,” the 31-year-old from Malaysia said. “All of us are still in disbelief.”
Sherniyazova was a master’s student studying international business at South Korea’s Chung-Ang University, Kuhn said. Originally from Aktobe, Kazakhstan, she received her undergraduate degree at Kazan University and had just celebrated her 26th birthday over the summer, he added.
Sherniyazova loved animals, posting videos of herself on social media feeding stray cats, visiting petting zoos and dancing with her pet birds, which she called her “babies.” Her last post, taken six days before the tragedy, showed her throwing autumn leaves into the air, smiling and sipping a drink on a terrace.
“She was a truly amazing individual who had so many amazing things ahead of her,” Kuhn said. “We are really sad to be saying goodbye.” — Kelly Kasulis Cho
Afagh Rastmanesh, 29
Afagh Rastmanesh was a published researcher, a proud feminist and a foodie with a passion for desserts who had moved to South Korea to advance her career and live free of government oppression, her friends said.
The Iranian 29-year-old died after suffering injuries during the Itaewon crush Saturday, the Iranian Embassy in Seoul confirmed. Mohammad Tavakkoli Yaraki, her friend and a postdoctoral researcher, said that she had gone to Seoul on Saturday with friends to unwind from the relentless academic pressure she felt, and to momentarily escape her growing concerns about the state of political freedoms in Iran.
“For just a weekend with her friends she went to Seoul to unwind, and then this happened,” he said, shaken. “They were just there to have one happy night.”
Rastmanesh had a love for pets and photography but never posted on social media, according to her friend Suryaprabha Thirumalaisamy, a postdoctoral researcher in the same lab as Rastmanesh at the Korea University of Technology and Education. She was doing her doctoral studies in mechanical engineering, researching biosensors, her friend said.
Thirumalaisamy last spoke with Rastmanesh about 3 p.m. Saturday, hours before tragedy struck in a neighborhood known to bring together many different people and cultures on Halloween. She was shocked to receive a call from Rastmanesh’s phone around midnight — it was a medical worker who said that she had died.
“Me and two other friends arrived at the hospital and saw her beautiful face. I held her hand for some time,” Thirumalaisamy said in an email that described Rastmanesh as “a very kindhearted person, very helpful and bold.”
Her birthday was Nov. 15, and Thirumalaisamy was getting ready to surprise Rastmanesh with all of her favorite Indian desserts. After Rastmanesh died, Thirumalaisamy said she went through her friend’s computer and looked at all the photos she had taken.
“I never forget her smiling face,” she said. “I will keep her memories as my treasures. I hope her soul will definitely find a most beautiful and peaceful place.”
Rastmanesh graduated from Iran’s Yasouj University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering, then earned her master’s degree at the Shiraz University of Technology in 2019. Just weeks before the tragedy in Itaewon, she uploaded a Ph.D. interview in which she referred to herself as “a highly motivated materials engineer.”
The young researcher had been looking to continue her studies in Australia or another country that offered a better chance of gaining citizenship so that she could put down roots for a better life, Tavakkoli Yaraki said. He said she was stressed and had struggled to contact her family in the last weeks of her life — the Iranian government tried to quell political dissent by cutting internet access in some areas — but she was also starting to settle in.
With tears welling in his eyes, he recalled receiving a phone call from Rastmanesh in late 2020; she asked for advice on whether to accept an offer to be a Ph.D. student in South Korea or to study somewhere else.
“I blame myself for advising her to go to South Korea at that time,” he said. “I will put her photo on my desk. To remind myself not to push students.”
“She was a fighter against sexism and wanted to have equality for women, and women in science. That was obvious," he added. “She was very kind, very talented, and I wish she could have joined our group. She would have been a star.”
The Iranian Embassy confirmed Thursday that four other Iranian nationals had died in the Itaewon crowd crush: Ali Parakand, born 1986; Reyhaneh Sadat Atashi, born 1998; Somayeh Moghimi Nezhad, born 1990; and Alireza Oliaee, born 1986. — Kelly Kasulis Cho
Stine Roalkvam Evensen, 20
Stine Roalkvam Evensen of Norway was an avid traveler and adventurer who climbed notoriously steep mountains, once bungee-jumped off a cliff and raced through an obstacle course filled with mud.
She died in the Itaewon crush while attending Yonsei University in Seoul as an exchange student, the Norwegian Embassy in Seoul confirmed Thursday. She was 20 years old.
Evensen, like many, attended South Korea’s biggest Halloween festivities that night. The year prior, she dressed up as a pirate, with a peacock feather peeking out of a skull-and-crossbones cap, her Instagram shows.
She had an appreciation for the outdoors, with photos on Instagram showing her kayaking in one of New Zealand’s national parks and smiling in the clear waters of the Malolo Lailai Islands in Fiji. In South Korea, she walked among cherry blossom trees, dressed up in traditional clothes to visit Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace and enjoyed a trip to an amusement park with friends.
The last photo she publicly posted, taken over the summer, showed her on a swing, looking out at the azure waters and a distant mountain from a Korean beach.
“Unfortunately we lost one of our members, Stine Roalkvam Evensen, whom we were lucky enough to meet on a mountain hike a few weeks back,” ANSA Korea, a group for Norwegian students in the country, said in a Facebook post Wednesday. “Our heart goes out to her friends and family.” — Kelly Kasulis Cho
Miriam Berger contributed to this report.