“He’s smiling, look at his smile, his face.” Oh Il-seok looks fondly at a photo taken of his daughter in the last hours of her life. As he removes his glasses to wipe his eyes, his wife whispers, “Ji-min is my friend, she is my best friend.”
Oh Ji-min, 25, was one of 158 people who were crushed to death by a mob during Halloween festivities in Seoul’s Itaewon night district on October 29.
Her parents have the unenviable task of reconstructing her final moments from selfies and pictures taken from her cell phone.
At 9:35 p.m., photos show Ji-min smiling inside a bar. At 9:59 p.m., he texted a friend that he was on his way home. Then, at 22:07, the last picture appears of Ji-min, smiling with her friend Kim.
The women make their way through the crowd towards the subway. Within minutes, a stampede broke out in the crowd and they forced the crowd into a narrow alleyway where dozens were about to die.
“Like We Were Sucked”
“We didn’t mean to go down that street … It was like we got sucked in,” recalls Kim, who asked to be identified only by her last name and in the days leading up to a memorial held on Friday. Talked to CNN. For the victims…
“I got separated from Ji-min when two other men came between us. When that happened, I lost my gait, but my feet were off the ground and only the crowd shook me.”
Official sources estimate that the fatal crush began at 10:15 pm, exactly eight minutes after Ji-min’s last selfie. There were 158 deaths in a street about 4 meters wide in which two young women were dragged. In addition to the many young South Koreans who died and 26 foreigners, 196 people, including Kim, were injured.
Kim said, “Somebody fell in front of me and I fell too.” “The next thing I realized I was lying on top of an alien and people were piling up on top of me and each other. I was on the second layer of that pile.”
Hope rose when he saw the face of a paramedic in front of him. He was trying to get a woman out but every time his body moved, people screamed.
Kim said, “We were already under pressure, but the pain was increasing trying to get him out, so he had to stop.”
A police officer who arrived at the scene said that when he arrived, there was already a pile of dead bodies in the street.
“We couldn’t get people out from under, there was too much pressure, I think they were already dead,” said the agent, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from his superiors.
“People in the second and third layers were fainting, shouting for help, but we could not pull them out.”
His account matched that of a lifeguard who told CNN he “saw 10 rows of faces (but) we couldn’t even see their feet.”
Kim’s memories of her rescue are hazy. “They pulled me out and I lay on the floor for a while. I think I lost consciousness for a while and woke up again. It was around 12:30 in the morning when they took me away in an ambulance.”
“I was hospitalized overnight and discharged. I couldn’t walk until the next morning. I pinched my legs but I couldn’t feel anything. I left the hospital but I couldn’t feel my legs for about 10 days. Didn’t happen.”
“That image comes to my head and I can’t sleep”
Ji-min’s mother, Kim Eun-mi, had no idea that her daughter was in Itaewon. She began to worry because Ji-min always came home early after a night out.
“That day, since it was a Saturday, I met Ji-min to go shopping. Later we had dinner together and she went to visit her friend. So when my son told me she went to Itaewon, So I said, ‘No, she went to meet her friend.
Throughout the night, the family made frantic calls to Ji-min’s cell phone, to hospitals and the police, and went to her nearby apartment to see if she had already returned home.
The next day at 1 pm, the family was asked to come to the hospital morgue to identify Ji-min’s body.
Kim Eun-mi said, “It’s really devastating to have to identify your daughter.” Between sobs her husband said: “When I go to bed… that image comes to my mind and I cannot sleep.”
The family goes to the cemetery near the house every day to see Ji-min. Ji-min’s parents spend sleepless nights visiting an online chat room that brings together relatives of those who lost their loved ones in the tragedy.
Kim Eun-mi says that talking to others in the same situation is helpful because only they can understand others’ pain.
The house where Ji-min grew up is clouded with sadness, with unanswered questions and anger.
Kim Eun-mi said, “The hardest and most disappointing thing is that no one can be held responsible for it. The tragedy happened, but no one is responsible for it.”
An advisory group made up of the families of more than 97 victims of the crash demanded a formal apology from President Yoon Suk Yeol and the dismissal of the security minister for failing to prevent the tragedy.
Although Yoon has expressed his “condolences” to the families, he has stopped short of apologizing, saying that “those specifically responsible” should be held accountable.
Security Minister Lee Sang-min said on 30 October that the tragedy could not have been prevented by quickly sending police or firefighters.
The National Police Agency is conducting a special investigation, but a parliamentary inquiry has not yet started due to political infighting.
So far two police officers have been dismissed and detained on charges of destroying an internal report on the risks of gathering a large crowd in Itaewon during Halloween festivities.
Former Yongsan district police chief Lee Im-jae is under investigation on suspicion of professional negligence and falsifying an official document, while former emergency control officer Song Byung-joo is under investigation on suspicion of professional negligence.
The police officer who spoke to CNN expressed concern about the direction of the investigation. They fear it will focus too much on mistakes made after the tragedy and not on the lack of safety planning ahead of time.
The police officer said, “The problem is that the real culprits do not take responsibility. The direction of the investigation is not looking up, but down.”
“There may be mistakes in trying to save another life, but who would want to do this job if they blame us?”
Ji-min’s parents said they have not heard back from the government since their daughter’s funeral.
He said that politics has no place in the investigation. They want facts about how and where their daughter died, and answers to the more difficult question of why it happened.
As they sort through a box of birthday cards and photos with friends from their daughter’s apartment, they grapple with a life-changing tragedy that should never have happened.
“She was very sweet and charming,” Kim Eun-mi says of her daughter. “She was such a dear daughter to me, but she is no longer with me.”
His voice breaks and sobs attack him again.