Young dreams extinguished in the crush of a Halloween crowd in Seoul
By Su-Hyun Lee, John Yoon Luke Vander Ploeg and Victoria Kim
A small-town girl, three days shy of turning 20, who dreamed of studying fashion design. A newly-minted college graduate, just settling into her first real-world job as a consultant. A budding polyglot with a passion for international business, two months into a semester abroad that had been delayed by the pandemic.
As portraits emerged of the 154 people who died in a crowd surge Saturday in the South Korean capital, Seoul, the losses cut deeper because so many were young people on the cusp of a new chapter.
More than 100 of those killed were in their 20s, many excitedly decked out in costume for the first Halloween in full swing since before the pandemic. Five people were high school students, according to the South Korean Education Ministry. One, the ministry said, was in middle school.
The young have always been drawn to Itaewon, Seoul’s most foreign-influenced neighborhood with a rich fabric of kebab shops, gay bars, taquerias and a mosque — all of which had come to be synonymous with the diversity of the community. The neighborhood’s worldwide draw was evident in just how far the tragedy reverberated: among the dead were citizens of Australia, Austria, China, France, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Norway, Russia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United States, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
Their lives would come to an end in a narrow, steep alleyway leading from a palm-tree-lined Hawaiian-theme bar past a Japanese izakaya and hip-hop club to the main street.
Adding to the tragedy, many of the victims were contemporaries of the 250 high school sophomores killed in 2014’s Sewol Ferry disaster, the last tragedy of this magnitude in South Korea. They would have been in their early 20s by now.
“My sweet boy, with a full life ahead of him,” Jeong Ae-ja said between wails Sunday afternoon, her knees buckling outside a hospital. An agonizing daylong wait had ended with the unthinkable news that her grandson, Kim Dong-gyu, was among the victims.
In his second year at a technical high school in Seoul, Kim, 18, had hopes of landing a coveted job at Samsung Electronics next year, and had promised his grandmother that he would give her pocket money when he did. Even as a student, he would squirrel away cash from part-time jobs and use some of it to lavish his mother and grandmother with clothes.
He was normally a homebody, but had recently shed some of his baby weight after putting in hours at the gym and was set on spending Halloween weekend in Itaewon, his family said. His grandmother, worried about the crowds, tried to dissuade him, but he told her not to worry, she recalled.
“I told him then to immediately head home if there were too many people,” Jeong said.
Park Ga-young, 19, had also been working part time to save up for her dream of studying fashion design in Canada.
For Park, a college student who grew up in the rural seaside town of Hongseong in the western part of South Korea, the trip to Seoul was a thrilling getaway to the big city.
She’d last spoken to her mother about her preparations for an even bigger adventure: studying abroad.
“How can I explain it in words?” said her mother, Choi Seon-mi, alternating between blank, numb stares, sobbing over the loss and moments of outrage at the authorities who let such a tragedy happen.
“She was a beautiful child,” she said, gently cradling a photograph of her daughter in her hands. “She was so very pretty.”
In the same doomed alleyway, Shin Ae-jin, 24, was less than two months into her first job out of college.
Driven and ambitious, she had known what she wanted early on and had joined the business club in college at Korea University. After graduating with a double major in life sciences and business administration, she joined McKinsey & Co.’s Seoul offices as a consultant, following in the footsteps of her father, a venture capitalist, her family said.
Shin was cheerful and gregarious and was always surrounded by a lot of friends, as well as being a lover of photography and travel, her father said. On Saturday, just hours after she had met her parents for coffee, she went out with her new colleagues.
Her father, Shin Jung-seob, had flown to Jeju Island on a business trip, then got a frantic call at 3 a.m. from a co-worker of his daughter’s saying that she was missing. In a daze, he got on the first flight back to Seoul, and began going from hospital to hospital with his wife.
The torturous inklings of hope persisted as they did not initially find her among the list of the dead at each hospital. After about a half-dozen stops, however, their search ended tragically when they found her at a hospital in Anyang, a suburb south of Seoul.
“We were looking for a long time,” her father said. “Too long.”
Noh Eun-seo, a bright 25-year-old college student majoring in tourism management and business administration, had been just two days away from a big interview.
Monday was her second round with Apple — but the Silicon Valley company would just have been a steppingstone. Her uncle, Noh Joon-tae, said that, because she had been the firstborn among her siblings and cousins, her father had wanted her to eventually run his dental technology business. As a backup plan in case she didn’t get the Apple job, her father had taken steps so that his talented daughter could go abroad to study English, the uncle said.
As her parents received photograph after photograph from her of the revelry in Itaewon on Saturday night, they did not think to worry about their responsible daughter who was always able to look after herself, Noh said.
Then around 10 p.m., the photographs stopped, and they could no longer reach her.
Like Noh Eun-seo, Steven Blesi had big designs for his future.
Blesi, a 20-year-old student at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, finally got his chance this fall to go on a long-awaited opportunity to study abroad in Asia, the first building block to a future career in international business. An Eagle Scout and basketball fan who loved to travel, he had been studying Korean, along with Spanish.
With the first set of midterms done, he had headed to Itaewon, the heart of the city’s Halloween celebrations. His father, an ocean away in suburban Atlanta, texted him midway through the evening: “I know you’re out and about. Be safe.”
As the initial reports emerged, he, like many parents in South Korea and around the world, waited for hours for word of his loved one. He and his wife got a call from an official at the U.S. Embassy in South Korea, asking first if they were sitting down.
“He was an adventurous spirit and a loving spirit,” his father, Steve Blesi, said. “That’s the only way I know how to describe him. And the loss is just unbearable.”