The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reporter still haunted by Itaewon crowd crush, a tragedy close to home

Mourners pay tribute at a makeshift street memorial for the victims of the deadly Halloween weekend crowd crush in Seoul's Itaewon district. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL — When I used to think of Itaewon, I thought of the place my mother spent her time as a ceramics teacher on the U.S. military base in the late 1980s. The place where my free-spirited aunt would go dancing under the swirling lights of the still-standing King Club. The place I came to love on my own in my mid-20s, as dates lured me into candlelit wine bars, basement drag shows and restaurants serving foreign dishes found nowhere else in Seoul.

After a few years in South Korea, I found myself in Itaewon so often that I decided to move there this summer. And then came the night of Oct. 29.

For me, Itaewon is now the place where dozens of people died in a narrow alley during what should have been a carefree Halloween weekend.

The crowd crush claimed at least 158 lives and injured many others. An analysis by The Washington Post found crucial missteps by police and emergency personnel contributed to the tragedy.

One month later, as the headlines fade and memorial flowers wither, many of us are still grappling with what happened and how life simply goes on.

Crucial lapses led to tragically delayed rescue in a Seoul alley

I had gotten up early on that Saturday to hang orange streamers and balloons shaped like jack-o’-lanterns and black cats from my apartment walls. They were a bit cringeworthy, I thought, but I wanted a tinselly, childlike vibe for an evening house party. Seoul’s isolation rules had been so strict during the pandemic that a neighbor once called the police to make sure I didn’t have more than three visitors in my home.

A similar craving for fun is surely what led many of the young people to Itaewon that night. For a few hours, they wanted a taste of pre-pandemic Seoul, when it was normal to stay out with friends until the subway reopened and the sun came up.

Photos sent to me in the early evening showed a carnival of young adults dressed as goofy matching sets of hot dogs and fries and a near-complete squad of Teletubbies. At first glance, the crowd in the background did not look any different from that on other Itaewon Halloweens — even I had gotten caught in past throngs, barely able to move for a time, strangers’ elbows ramming into my sides.

Then, just before midnight, I started hearing about serious injuries. I raced out, not even bringing a coat. I figured I’d probably be back home in an hour or so.

I reached Itaewon’s main drag within minutes and immediately felt like I was swimming against a current of people, most seemingly unaware of the horror barely a block away. A friend and I twisted sideways and locked hands to squeeze through the flow. I turned a corner and saw a dead body. It would be the first of many.

Dozens of victims had already been lined up in rows on the ground. One man was on a gurney, his pale feet sticking out from under a baby blue sheet. The street was backed up with ambulances, and sirens blared nonstop in the distance.

In photos and video: Scores dead in Seoul's Itaewon after crowd crush

I stayed and reported for nearly five hours. Someone I later met near the alley showed me videos they had recorded there on their phone. My first thought was that the scene looked like “Guernica,” Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece of violence and suffering. The dead were strewn all over the pavement, their shirts or costumes pulled over their faces by their would-be rescuers. A thin, young woman with long hair lay on her side, blood pooled by her.

There were more bodies in another video shot by the northern end of the alley. One man’s face remained frozen in a fearful expression — the only still figure in a frame of people crouched down on the ground, their shoulders bouncing up and down as they frantically performed CPR on others.

Finally, shivering and exhausted, I had to leave. The time stamp of one of my last tweets was 4:38 a.m.

The death toll was already 146. Each time the fire department had updated reporters on casualties, an official would show a dry-erase board with details written in small Korean letters that were impossible to read from a distance. I’d scramble to take a photo of the TV cameramen’s monitors and then zoom in. As the numbers rose, I felt a cold, prickling sensation run through my spine. I can still feel it when those moments replay in my mind.

For weeks, people privately messaged me on Twitter asking if I had heard anything about their friends. No official list of the deceased was released, and a South Korean website that collected and posted 155 names was swiftly condemned and replaced it with a redacted version.

When a mass casualty event happens in the United States, the magnitude of loss is conveyed by family and friends sharing details about their loved one. But in South Korea, victims have been shamed by netizens and online trolls for choosing to party that Saturday. Some people have griped online about the government’s pledge to give up to $26,000 per victim to grieving families, saying these young people brought death upon themselves. Others have scoffed that Halloween isn’t even a Korean holiday or questioned whether the situation is being co-opted for political purposes.

Signs of a terrible struggle remained in the alley: One bar’s sign had been ripped from its hinges, and the gold block letters of another were almost entirely gone, with long and jagged scratch marks left behind. A letter was missing from a store sign that a man had scaled to escape the crowds on Oct. 29, and at least two bricks from the facade of an alley wall appeared to be broken off, like teeth that had been chipped.

Seoul crowd crush victims: An actor. A student. The ‘life of the party.’

I had visited the makeshift lost-and-found center set up in a gymnasium for both survivors and relatives of the deceased. A purple Teletubbies mask was among the belongings on display; it looked exactly like the one worn by a petite young woman in a photo taken at the top of the alley just minutes before the crush hit. I felt desperate to know whether she survived.

At home, I popped all of my balloons and stuffed them into garbage cans. I ran scissors through the ones that said “Happy Halloween.” I cried as I washed the glasses from my party — stained dark red from long-dried wine.

In a session with a therapist, I was asked what I want people to understand about the tragedy in Itaewon. Breaking down, all I could think to say was “the horror.”

I now find myself doing unusually sentimental things. I’ve stopped by the alley memorial several times, once leaving flowers and a bottle of soju for the victims. Weeks earlier than usual, I put up a Christmas tree as a reminder that it was no longer October and that time keeps moving forward. I often feel conflicted about my grief, knowing I was not one of the people who suffered a loved one’s loss. I also feel guilty if I have a good day.

I have spoken with many individuals whose lives were deeply shaken one month ago: a young woman who lost her boyfriend, a man who regretted telling his friend to study in Seoul, some who aren’t yet recovered from the severe physical injuries suffered in the crush. One college student, her face a waterfall of tears, wanted the world to know that most people around the alley didn’t know what was occurring — and that it was not the victims’ fault for being there.

Many people are still stuck on that night. For what it’s worth, I am, too.