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South Korea confronts the trauma of the Halloween crowd crush

Young women comfort each other Monday in Noksapyeong, Seoul. (Jean Chung/For The Washington Post)

SEOUL — As the names of those killed in Saturday’s crowd crush in Itaewon trickle out and residents pay their respects at mourning altars dedicated to the victims, South Korea’s collective trauma is only just beginning.

The soaring death tolls. Social media images and videos of the chaos and suffering. Endless news coverage. Thousands of witnesses and emergency personnel, and countless more people who have heard their accounts and grieved with them. South Korean residents are reeling from the horror that unfolded Saturday night, which killed at least 154 and injured 149 more.

In online forums, Korean users have begun anonymously posting about the physical manifestations of their trauma: tremors, nausea, nightmares, fatigue and uncontrollable crying. Korean government and medical officials are warning about the impact, urging people to take care in consuming information and to seek mental health care and support. But mental illness and psychiatry still carry stigmas in this country, which will probably pose barriers for the healing process.

Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have been in Itaewon on Saturday, the night that partygoers were trapped in a crowd crush in a narrow alleyway. The effects of that tragedy will reach far beyond the people who were there that night and their loved ones, experts warn.

South Korean residents are reeling from the horror that unfolded Oct. 29 when at least 154 people were killed and 149 injured in a Halloween crowd crush. (Video: The Washington Post)

“This tragedy unfolded in an area where people feel safe, expect to have fun and otherwise don’t expect to experience anything dangerous. It can be very shocking to so many people,” said Hye-sun Joo, director of the Korea Trauma Research and Education Institute.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has declared a national mourning period in remembrance of the victims. Businesses near the site where the crowd crush occurred have shut down for the week, after the surrounding area was declared a disaster zone.

‘It was almost post-apocalyptic’: A reckoning awaits Seoul’s crowd tragedy

The deaths of so many victims in their teens and 20s are reminders of the 2014 capsizing of the Sewol ferry, which killed more than 300 people — mostly high school students on a school trip on the boat.

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Seoul Halloween tragedy
At least 158 people were killed in a crowd crush during Halloween celebrations in the streets and narrow alleys of the Itaewon area of Seoul on the night of Oct. 29. The tragedy has prompted debate over the role of national and local agencies and who should be accountable. South Korea’s police chief said the crowd control was “inadequate.”
Crowd crush
A crowd crush or surge happens when people are packed together in a confined space and there’s movement such as pushing that causes the crowd to fall over. (It’s different from a stampede). See photos and videos showing how the crush happened in Itaewon, and read accounts from those who were there.
The victims
Officials said they have identified all of the victims and mourners have left white flowers and handwritten notes. The victims include 56 men and 102 women, and most were in their 20s and 30s. At least 26 foreign nationals were among the dead.

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After that tragedy, there was a general feeling in South Korea that the country’s institutions and leaders failed its most vulnerable: the youth. The Itaewon tragedy may bring up similar feelings of failure and helplessness for many, Joo said.

Social media has become more prominent since the Sewol disaster. On Saturday, it was nearly impossible to avoid images and videos being shared in near-real time from the crowd crush. While South Korean media has strict standards on blurring sensitive images, many from the crush were unblurred.

“As people consume information about what happened that night, their own hearts may race wondering how those people felt that night, what they heard, what they were thinking,” Joo said. “As people experience the empathy and fear on behalf of those victims, even if they weren’t there on-site, the exposure to that night’s events can affect them in a traumatic way.”

The Korean Neuropsychiatric Association on Sunday released a statement warning people about the lasting damages of the tragedy for bereaved families and friends; those who were injured and their loved ones; the witnesses; and the medical and emergency staff who responded. The association said the incident has triggered the need for large-scale mental health support.

The government has begun offering some resources. The South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare set up a support group for a limited number of people affected by the disaster, offering psychological support for about 1,000 family members, witnesses and survivors.

But the need for healing will be far greater. In the days immediately following the tragedy, friends and family members were sharing their memories privately, checking in with one another and offering support. Their expressions of grief and trauma poured out publicly, as well.

On Monday, people lined up at an altar outside City Hall to pay their respects, laying flowers and bowing. A Buddhist monk prayed at the altar, beating a wooden instrument in the shape of a fish used in chants, as groups shuffled through.

In a tent next to the altar outside Seoul City Hall, counselors were ready to speak with mourners. Two plastic folding tables, with a small folding shutter to shield the grieving people from view, stood just feet from the entrance to the altar, where gloved workers were handing out flowers.

A mother visiting the site with her daughter, in her 20s, said she wanted to pray that the victims would have “a better life in heaven,” and expressed sorrow that so many of those killed were around her daughter’s age.

‘So many bodies’: Seoul witnesses recall Halloween night of true horror

At a community center in Hannam — a neighboring area to the site of the crush — concerned families and friends had gathered in search of information on those missing. As they registered the names of the ones they were searching for, they waited and milled about the center with somber expressions. Around lunchtime Sunday, family after family received the news that the people they were looking for were among the dead.

Most people burst out of the center in tears and screaming, dashing to cars or the subway station, or simply running away as they processed the news. One elderly man stopped to speak, as his wife and a young woman ran ahead of him, speechless and trembling with emotion.

“We called and then came all the way from a village far from here with the hopes that we’d find them as just injured in a hospital,” he said of his missing family member. “But they were found as a body.”

Another woman sprinted out of the center and into a car. She paused before getting in, facing reporters with tears in her eyes, but was unable to utter any words. At the center, her colleague, an official with the presidential office, explained that she was an employee of the presidential office who had worked overnight helping families search for loved ones. While working, she had learned that a family member was one of the missing. Then she received the news that the family member, a high school student, was one of the dead.

In the immediate aftermath of the crush on Saturday night, a young man sat on a stoop in a Spider-Man costume. He was among scores of people that night sitting around the area in Itaewon with blank stares, as the screams and wailing of witnesses and survivors rang out around them.

As music continued to blare and deflated partygoers stumbled down the sidewalk nearby, he told a reporter that he was part of the crowd. When asked to describe what happened, he froze and his gaze went blank as he trembled. Separated by police tape, the reporter was unable to continue the conversation or console the young man.

Yoon-sung Park, a 24-year-old tech worker from Texas, was one of the people helping victims on Saturday. He carried people to clearer ground, where they could be sprawled out for medical treatment.

“People were laid across here all the way down, about a half-mile,” he said, gesturing toward Itaewon’s main drag. “There were so many bodies on the floor.”

Earlier Saturday night, Park and his friend had attended the Atelier club at the top of the alley as part of their month-long vacation to South Korea.

Sitting with a bottle of water at a cafe near the scene, Park appeared to be in a state of shock.

“If we stayed there, we could have died,” he said.

Standing outside a makeshift memorial of flowers and empty liquor bottles nestled against Itaewon Station on Monday, Lila Lee, a 50-year-old artist from Canada, said she had walked through the alleys hours before the crowd crush. “All I could think was, ‘Oh, my kids would love it here,’ ” she said, her wiping away tears. “These victims were just kids. When you use the word ‘adult’ — they’re not. They were just kids.”

Maryam Kaneko, a 25-year-old hospitality worker living in Japan, said that she needed to see the memorial to calm herself after spending the weekend scrolling through gruesome photos and videos of the crowd crush online. She and her friends had planned to visit Itaewon on Saturday night, but canceled after she got sick. “It could have been me. It could have been anyone,” she said. “I had goose bumps all over my body, and I just couldn’t sleep since then.”

Although she didn’t witness the incident in person, she believes some people may be experiencing a collective trauma. “When I ride the trains and there are so many people, I can’t breathe. It scares me,” she said. “I saw every picture, every video. I just couldn’t breathe, so I had to get off.”

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