People visit the site of the Itaewon Halloween crowd crush in Seoul. Photo: KIM Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
A teenager who survived a deadly crowd crush in Seoul over Halloween weekend was found dead on Tuesday night, local news reported. A police official said he is suspected to have died by suicide, though this remains unconfirmed. According to the South Korean police, the unnamed high schooler was found in a motel located in western Seoul, following a missing person’s report by his mother. No suicide note was found.
"He is assumed to have taken his own life. No autopsy will be conducted according to the wishes of his family," police said.He attended the Halloween festivities and like dozens of others that fatal October night, lost friends in the tragedy. The teen himself required medical attention at the hospital after sustaining life threatening injuries and was receiving psychological counseling at a hospital and his school for his trauma. On Oct. 29, tens of thousands of people flooded into the narrow alleyways of Itaewon, a party district in the capital Seoul, as many celebrated the first Halloween festivities since South Korea lifted mask mandates. But the night turned fatal when people were trapped in the area’s narrow streets, suffocating and falling from the sheer pressure of bodies pressed together. 158 people died, mostly those in their teens and 20s. But the impact of tragedy didn’t end that night, with hundreds of others reeling from the mental health toll it has brought in the weeks since. Kim Seo-jun, a 34-year-old florist, who wasn’t present that night but lost a friend in the crush, said that the Halloween crowds in Itaewon had gotten so large in recent years that he worried a tragedy like this would happen.“Seeing a lot of news about the tragedy, I’ve started feeling heavier and heavier, and I feel like I’m being traumatized mentally,” he told VICE World News. "I want to reduce this trauma. I've also been preparing for a volunteer service."
In an October statement, the Korean Neuropsychiatric Association warned people about the psychological damage of being exposed to images related to the tragedy, as well as the long term mental toll for bereaved families and friends, those injured in the incident, and responding medical and emergency staff.The South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare has also set up a support group for about 1,000 family members, witnesses and survivors directly affected by the tragedy. At the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, five students are currently receiving psychological counseling, Yonhap News Agency reported. Jill Dunbar, a South Korea-based clinical psychologist who offered free counseling sessions in the immediate aftermath of the crowd crush, told VICE World News she experienced a spike in patients seeking help, and expects many more to come forward in the weeks to come. “When something awful, disturbing and completely unexpected happens, it shakes us and suddenly we feel like we don't know what to expect,” she said.“These are huge events that can take months to process, if not years, and recovery isn't about forgetting about the event. It's accepting and learning to live with the fact that this has happened, this life changing event.”Public grief surrounding the tragedy has been compounded by citizens’ mounting anger towards authorities, who initially failed to admit they couldn’t control crowds that Saturday night.
Park Seung-hyo, who was born and raised in Itaewon, told VICE World News it’s obvious who’s to blame. “People died while they were walking, but the police, the officials, the government have no sense of responsibility and easily talk as if the victims did something wrong,” she said through tears.What’s worse, Park said, South Korea experienced another deadly tragedy just eight years ago, referring to the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy that killed 306 people. Like the Itaewon crowd crush, authorities neglected warning signs that a tragedy would unfold, fueling anti-government protests and calls for accountability. “Young people died again. And as an adult, it’s shameful and saddens me a lot,” she said.After the disaster in Itaewon, a special police unit was formed to investigate what went wrong that night, with officials raiding police stations to collect evidence and internal reports. On Dec. 5, authorities also arrested two former senior officers accused of destroying evidence related to the tragedy. They had allegedly ordered their subordinates to delete an internal report that was produced before the tragedy unfolded detailing the dangers of a large crowd gathering that night in Itaewon.But for victims’ friends and families, these police actions hardly suffice. On Nov. 22, bereaved families organized a press conference for the first time, demanding a sincere apology from the government and clarity on who’s responsible for the deaths.
Holding her 29-year-old son’s death certificate, one mother lamented the fact that she still didn’t know the time, location or exact cause of her child’s death. “If people in politics care about the pain of parents who lost their children, they should investigate what happened properly and apologize for failing to save young lives. This is your fault,” she said. While the country waits for answers, survivors and victims’ loved ones struggle with their own grief. After surviving the crowd crush, the unnamed young man who died in a suspected suicide this week was said to be meeting with a psychiatrist twice weekly and receiving on-campus counseling. He was slowly returning to his daily routine and seemed to be getting better, the family said his counselor had told them.But less than two months after that deadly night, he took his own life. “The family are consumed with guilt that he managed to survive the disaster but they weren’t able to protect him after it,” a relative of his said at his funeral on Wednesday morning. To help others cope who are experiencing similar trauma, Kim the florist has handed out free flowers to mourners visiting the site of the tragedy. About his friend, whom he described as kind and warm hearted, Kim said, “I believe one day that we’ll reunite happily.” Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.