Victims’ selfies help make sense of the Itavene tragedy in which 158 people died

SEOUL (CNN) — “He laughs, his smile, look at his face.” Oh Il-seok fondly looks at a photo taken of her daughter in the last hours of her life. As he takes off his glasses to wipe his eyes, his wife whispers, “Ji-min is my friend, he’s my best friend.”

Oh Ji-min, 25, was one of 158 people crushed by a crowd during a Halloween festival in Seoul’s Itaewon night district on October 29.

Her parents have the unimaginable task of reconstructing her last moments from selfies and cellphone photos.

At 9:35 p.m., photos show Ji-min smiling inside the bar. At 9:59 p.m., he texted a friend to say he was on his way home. Then, at 22:07, the last photo of Ji-min appears, smiling with her friend Kim.

The girls head to the subway, making their way through the crowd. Within minutes, panic gripped the crowd and drove them into a narrow alley where dozens died.

itaewon korea tragedy

The photo of Ji-min and his party mates was taken moments before the fatality. CNN has withheld portions of this footage to protect the identities of those in the background who did not consent to being photographed. Courtesy of the O Family

“Like We’re Absorbed”

“We didn’t want to go down that alley … it kind of sucked us in,” recalled Kim, who asked to be identified only by her last name and spoke to CNN in the days before Friday’s memorial. For the victims..

“I broke away from Ji-min when two other people got between us. When that happened, I lost my loafers, but my feet were off the ground and only the crowd moved me.”

Official sources estimate that the fatal attraction began at 10:15 p.m., eight minutes after Ji-min’s last selfie. 158 deaths occurred in an alley about 4 meters wide through which two young women were dragged. In addition to the deaths of several young South Koreans and 26 foreigners, 196 people, including Kim, were injured.

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“Someone fell in front of me and I fell,” Kim said. “The next thing I realized I was lying on top of a foreigner and people were piling on top of me and on top of each other. I was on the second tier of that pile.”

Hope came when I saw the face of a doctor in front of me. He tried to get a woman out, but every time his body moved the crowd screamed.

“We were already under pressure, but trying to get her out added more pain, so she had to stop,” Kim said.

A police officer who arrived at the scene said that bodies were piled up in the alley when he arrived.

“We couldn’t get people out from below, there was so much pressure, I think they were already dead,” said the agent, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from his superiors.

“People from the second and third floors fainted and screamed for help, but we couldn’t get them out.”

His account matched that of a lifeguard who told CNN there were “10 rows of faces (but) we couldn’t even see their legs.”

Kim’s memories of her own recovery are hazy. “They took me out and I was lying on the floor for a while. I think I passed out for a while and woke up again. It was 12:30 in the morning when they took me to the ambulance.”

“I was hospitalized overnight and released. I couldn’t walk until the next morning. I pinched my legs, but I didn’t feel anything. I left the hospital, but I didn’t feel my legs for about 10 days.”

itaewon korea tragedy

Heartbroken father Oh Il-seok and mother Kim Eun-mi in Cheong City, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea on December 14, 2022. Credit: David Hawley/CNN

“That image came into my head and didn’t sleep”

Ji-min’s mother, Kim Eun-mi, is unaware that her daughter is in Itaewon. He starts to worry because Ji-min always comes home early after a night out.

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“That day, being Saturday, I met Ji-min to go shopping, and then we ate together, and she went to see her friend. So when my son told me that she went to Itaewon, I said, “No, she. She went to see her friend.”

Throughout the night, the family made frantic calls to Ji-min’s cell phone, to hospitals and the police, and visited his apartment nearby to see if he had already returned home.

The next day at 1pm, the family received a call to come to the hospital mortuary to identify Ji-min’s body.

“Identifying your own daughter is really devastating,” Kim Yoon-mi said. In between sobs, her husband added: “When I go to bed… the image comes to me and I can’t sleep.”

The family visits Ji-min every day at the cemetery near the house. Every sleepless night, Ji-min’s parents visit an online chat room that brings together relatives of those who lost loved ones in the tragedy.

Kim Yoon-mi says that talking to others in the same situation is helpful because only they can understand others’ pain.

Grief is clouded by unanswered questions and anger in the home Ji-min grew up in.

“The most difficult and frustrating thing is that no one takes responsibility. The tragedy happened, but no one takes responsibility,” said Kim Eun-mi.

The advisory group, made up of the families of more than 97 victims of the crash, demanded that President Yoon Suk-yeol formally apologize and fire the defense minister for failing to prevent the tragedy.

Although Yoon expressed his “condolences” to the families, he stopped short of apologizing, saying instead that “those especially responsible” should be held accountable.

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Defense Minister Lee Sang-min said on October 30 that the tragedy could not have been prevented by earlier dispatch of police or fire brigades.

Continued research

The National Police Agency is conducting a special investigation, but a parliamentary inquiry has yet to be launched due to political infighting.

Two police officers have so far been fired and detained for allegedly destroying an internal report on the dangers of large crowds in Itaewon during Halloween.

Former Yongsan District Police Chief Lee Im-jae is on trial on suspicion of professional negligence and falsifying an official document, while former emergency control officer Song Byung-joo is on trial on suspicion of professional negligence.

A police official who spoke to CNN expressed concern about the direction the investigation is taking. He fears it will focus too much on mistakes made after the tragedy and lack of advance safety planning.

“The problem is that the real culprits are not being held accountable. The direction of investigation is not looking up, only looking down,” said a police officer.

“There may be mistakes in trying to save one more life, but if they blame us, who wants to do this job?”

Ji-min’s parents said they have not heard from the government since their daughter’s funeral.

He said there was no place for politics in the investigation. They want the facts about how and where their daughter died and answers to the difficult question of why it happened in the first place.

As they sort through a box of birthday cards and photos with friends rescued from their daughter’s apartment, they wrestle with a life-changing tragedy that never happened.

“She was very kind and charming,” Kim Yoon-mi says of her daughter. “She was my most beautiful daughter, but she is no longer with me.”

Her voice breaks and sobs overtake her again.

Esmond Harmon

"Entrepreneur. Social media advocate. Amateur travel guru. Freelance introvert. Thinker."

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