As officials begin their investigation into the deadly Halloween crowd crush in downtown Seoul on Saturday, the shock and anguish over the deaths of at least 154 victims reverberate across South Korea, and far beyond its borders.
A 19-year-old student from Hongseong who was saving money to study fashion design in Canada. A 24-year-old K-pop singer and actor who competed in a reality singing competition. A 20-year-old American from Kentucky on a study abroad semester in South Korea.
Most of the victims were in their 20s, and most of them were women, according to the Ministry of the Interior and Safety. Multiple teenagers were also killed, as were 26 foreigners: from Iran, China, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Japan, Sri Lanka, the US, and more.
That night in Itaewon, a bumping nightlife district popular with young people and foreigners, people dressed up in costumes, excited to celebrate Halloween with COVID precautions eased for the first time in years. The revelries turned chaotic, then deadly. According to reports, around 10 p.m., the crowd started moving in different directions, pushing people into a narrow alley with a downward slope. People fell on top of each other, crushing the ones at the bottom.
“It looked like the graves of people piled upon one another,” a woman told Yonhap News Agency.
With funerals set to take place over the next few days, friends and family members are struggling to accept the sudden, horrific deaths of their loved ones.
Nabeela Ami found out that her friend Madina Sherniyazova, a 26-year-old Kazakhstani, was one of the victims from a friend group chat. She heard that Sherniyazova and her boyfriend were heading home from Itaewon on Saturday night. They were holding hands but lost their grip on each other in the crush. Sherniyazova did not make it.
“All of us are shocked,” Ami, who is Malaysian, told BuzzFeed News. “This happened so fast.”
Ami and Sherniyazova met in 2019 through WOWKorea, a Korean cultural program under the national tourism organization. That friend group was tight-knit, Ami said, “like a family.”
Sherniyazova clicked with everyone, and they traveled around South Korea together: Busan, Jeju, Danyang, and Ganghwa. Some in the group relied on Sherniyazova to translate because she spoke Korean “just like a Korean,” Ami said.
The Kazakhstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed on Telegram that a Kazakh citizen had died in the Halloween crowd crush in Seoul. The ministry did not name the victim, but said that she was born in 1996 and was a university student.
Sherniyazova loved everything about South Korea, Ami said. On Instagram, she shared posts about her visits to cultural sites and events.
Ami thought of Sherniyazova’s kindness and her love for Korean culture. She thought of how she was always helping others, even in small ways. And how she would never see her friend share her adventures in South Korea on Instagram again.
Two American students also died in the crush: Steven Blesi, a Kennesaw State University junior from Marietta, Georgia, and Anne Gieske, a nursing student from the University of Kentucky. Both were doing a semester abroad in South Korea. Both were 20 years old.
Blesi’s father, Steve, tweeted on Saturday evening that his son was in the crowd crush in Itaewon, and they had not heard from him.
“If anyone has news please share,” he pleaded.
Nearly four hours later, he tweeted again: “We just got confirmation our son died.”
Blesi’s semester in South Korea was his “first big adventure,” his dad told the Washington Post. Blesi sent his family videos and photos from his travels. He last told his dad that he was off to have fun with his friends now that his midterms had ended, the Post reported.
As information about the disaster spread, his family called government agencies and the study abroad program, texted Blesi’s friends, and waited. Then the US Embassy in South Korea called to deliver the news: He was dead.
“It was like [being] stabbed like a hundred million times simultaneously,” his dad told the New York Times.
Gieske was a junior from northern Kentucky. University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto announced that Gieske was one of the victims in a statement on Sunday, describing her death as an “indescribable loss.”
Her father, Dan Gieske, told NBC News that they were “completely devastated and heartbroken” over her death. “She was a bright light loved by all,” he said.
Gieske shared photos and videos of her life in Seoul on an Instagram page dedicated to her travels in South Korea. In her last post, the day before she died, Gieske posed for photos by the Han River, her face glowing. It was her 20th birthday.
Many families went through agonizing searches for their loved ones. Shin Ae-jin’s parents went from one hospital to another to find out if their daughter was among the dead there, the New York Times reported. At 24, Shin was months into her first job out of college and was in Itaewon on Saturday night with her colleagues.
Friends and family members of Tomikawa Mei, a Japanese citizen, were frantically looking for her when they heard about the disaster in Itaewon. Some asked for help online, and her father told NHK that he called her phone repeatedly until a police officer picked up. He learned on Sunday that she died.
Mei, 24, was studying Korean in Seoul. She had dreamed of working in South Korea, her dad told NHK.
Others, too, had big dreams and bright futures. Park Ga-young, 19, was working part-time so that she could eventually afford to study fashion design in Canada, the Times reported.
Another victim, Lee Ji-han, was a 24-year-old actor and K-pop singer who appeared on Season 2 of the singing competition Produce 101. Lee’s agency announced his death in a statement early on Sunday.
"He had pure and positive energy with great passion for acting,” 935 Entertainment said. “It is very hard to believe that we cannot see him anymore.”
Grace Rached, 23, was identified by authorities as the only Australian national who died in the crush. According to her Facebook profile, she studied at the University of Technology Sydney until 2021.
Her family described her as a “talented film producer who was passionate about making a difference.”
“Grace always made others feel important and her kindness left an impression on everyone she ever met,” her family said. “We will all deeply miss our beautiful Grace, our life of the party.”
Rached was an avid traveler; on social media, she posted photos and videos from recent trips to Bali and Mexico City.
In August, she shared her thoughts on TikTok about what she’s learned in life so far: “when you go, nothing goes with you. so you may as well enjoy your time here. … it always works out in the end.”