SEOUL — Lee Ji-han dreamed of becoming an actor and singer. In 2017, when he was 18, he took part in the TV audition show Produce 101, where he competed to be the next K-pop megastar. In one episode, he danced to the song “Overdose” by the boy group EXO-K. In another, he put on a traditional Korean king’s outfit and read lines from a romance drama with a wistful gaze into the distance: “You are my moon. Don’t walk away from me.”
Lee didn’t win the competition, but he made new friends and bonded with old ones like Park Hee-seok, a fellow participant in the show. They met often and leaned on each other throughout the demanding audition process. They celebrated their birthdays—just a few days apart in August—together. They shared meals at Park’s home and watched the sunrise from the Jeongdongjin Beach, a sandy beach 182 km east of Seoul.But next year, Park will have to celebrate without his friend. Lee was one of at least 156 people who died in a crowd crush in the Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon on Saturday. He was 24.He’d been filming for a new fantasy TV show the Season of Kkokdu, in which he plays the female lead’s ex-boyfriend. The production has been put on hold following the tragedy.Park met Lee’s parents at his funeral the next day.“I tried not to cry, but I couldn’t,” Park told VICE World News. “His parents looked devastated, saying ‘Oh no, no… What am I supposed to do? My poor Ji-han.” “I don’t think I’ll ever get over it,” Park, who is now a singer, said of Lee’s death. “I just hope he’s not forgotten too soon.” Lee was one of more than 100,000 partygoers who descended on Itaewon on Saturday night to celebrate the capital’s first Halloween since it lifted outdoor mask mandates in late September.
But the festivities grew deadly when crowds started flooding the narrow neon-lit alleyways, leading to crushes. Korea’s police force has admitted that it underestimated how many people would turn up and crowd control measures were “inadequate.”Like Lee, most of the victims were young and had vibrant dreams for their future. 104 were in their 20s. Some were even too young to drink: among the casualties were 12 teens. 26 of them were foreign nationals.They include a 19-year-old who started working at a young age at a hair salon to support her parents; a 25-year-old who donated her bone marrow to her father for leukemia treatment three years ago; and a 23-year-old Australian film producer who, in her family’s telling, “lit up a room with her infectious smile.”South Korea has officially entered a period of mourning, grieving the young lives lost in the country’s deadliest incident since the Sewol ferry tragedy in 2014.As authorities investigate what went wrong that night, those who did make it out of the crowd are left retracing their steps, some wondering if one small decision they made was the only thing separating them between life and death.
Never much of a partier, Mun Gyeong-hun didn’t expect the huge crowds of people as he arrived in Itaewon around 9 p.m. The 18-year-old hates packed spaces but was excited to go because he had never celebrated Halloween. But even as he made his way toward the area’s alleys that lead to neon-lit bars, Mun had a sinking feeling—there were way too many people for these narrow, sloped streets.He started getting pushed around by other people from all directions, slipping on the street covered with spilled drinks and broken bottles. He nearly fell once. “I thought I would be crushed to death,” Mun told VICE World News.More and more he lost control of his footing. He heard people screaming, their hysteric cries for help barely audible over the nearby bars’ thudding music. As the crowd surged forward, he wondered if people would be crushed to death.He looked to get out as soon as possible, ducking into the recessed shopfront of Emart24, a convenience store on the side of the alley, and staying there. This split-second move would save his life. While isolated from the worst of the surge, he could see people caught in the slow, agonizing crush losing consciousness right before his eyes.“That’s a memory I no longer want to recall,” he said.
Mun managed to leave the alleyway at 11:00 p.m. Others who narrowly survived the disaster said they could only take short breaths under the intense squeeze of the crowd and left at the first opportunity. A man was seen climbing the wall nearby, reportedly right before the crush occurred.
Crowd safety experts advise that, in the event of a crowd surge, people should keep their hands in front of their chest like a boxer, do not resist the movement of the crowd, and, if they fall, protect themselves by curling into a ball.Mun was fortunate that there happened to be a gap he could move into. But as lucky as he was, he said he felt guilty about his survival: it could have been anyone.Mun has always wanted to become a police officer, he said, but now he knows better what kind of officer he wants to be: the kind that prevents tragedies like the one that took away many’s dreams and almost his.Follow Junhyup Kwon on Twitter.Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.